Monday, July 16, 2007

Fly or flounder

If one looks at scientific information from an economic point of view, and considers supply and demand, it will probably look like this: In an area mainly driven by readers who clamour to see the research (a 'read-or-rot' area), subscriptions make sense; in an area mainly driven by the need to publish (a 'publish-or-perish' area, arguably the most common in science), article processing charges for open access publishing makes sense; and in an area mainly driven by political or other overarching societal concerns ('fly-or-flounder'?), direct subsidies make sense.

The question is, can one, or should one, look at scientific information in this way. The answer is, in my view at least, 'yes'.

Science research activity, including the publishing of research results, is clearly an economic activity, with supply and demand, so that would definitely argue for the 'yes' vote. But are the three scenarios mentioned above of equal importance? Scientific information is to a very large degree a 'product' for which supply and demand are overlapping, suppliers (authors) being 'demanders' (in their role as readers) - and vice versa. With regard to formally publishing scientific findings, the demands placed on the system by 'suppliers' are, in general, much stronger than the demands placed on it by readers. What I've often heard in research circles is that as a scientist, you can mostly get away with reading only a selection of relevant literature (the rest being of a confirmatory nature, so seeing the abstract is enough, or even just knowing that an article exists), or rather, you must, because there's an information overload in most disciplines and you wouldn't be able to read it all anyway. As an author, though, there's no escape: you have to publish.

Of the three scenarios mentioned, the last two are arguably the most important. Yet the overwhelming majority of the economic activity takes place in the framework of scenario 1. That's an 'issue' (euphemism for 'problem') and our challenge is to make the transition to scenarios 2 and 3 while keeping the crucial elements of the system of formal publishing intact and economically viable, especially peer-review.

Jan Velterop

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