Sunday, February 05, 2012

Collaborate, don't frustrate

We have seen a fair amount of activity on the web in the last few weeks with regard to protests, even boycotts, aimed at prominent publishers. Most of it seems to be about money. When money is tight, it leads to a fight.

We are in the huge pickle of a dysfunctional system. And that’s certainly not just the publishers’ fault. They just make the most of the system that is there and that is being kept alive by the scientific community at large. See my previous post. All publishers are commercial and all want to optimize their profits, although some, the not-for-profit outfits, optimize their ‘results’ or their ‘surplus’. Same thing, really. It’s just the way the capitalist system works. The system is dysfunctional because there is no competition. The scientific community allows it to exist without competition. Relying on subscriptions for their income makes journals, and their publishers, monopoloid in an environment where content is non-rivalrous. If the only options to get from A to B – and you have to get from A to B – are a train or walking, because there are no roads, then the train company has a hold on you. And on your money. The situation in science publishing is scarcely different.

So the solution is introducing competition. ‘Gold’ Open Access publishing does just that, albeit perhaps in a fairly primitive way, so far. It’s typically a game of new entrants. But in order to be truly successful, the scientific community at large has to buy in to it. Literally ‘buy’ into it. Publishers can lead the horse to the Open Access water, but they can’t make it drink.

I won’t hold my breath. And there is so much else in science publishing, besides money matters, that needs to be improved.

Just one example: fragmentation. Fragmentation is a big, frustrating problem. Particularly for the efficient and effective ingestion of information. But it need not be so bad. Although science publishers are bound by antitrust rules, there are areas of a pre-competitive nature where they are allowed to collaborate. Think standards, think CrossRef. Those forms of collaboration, for the benefit of science, could be expanded. Other standards could be introduced, to do with data linking, for instance, with data representation, computer-readability, interoperability. Things like structured abstracts. Perhaps even ontologies and agreed vocabularies for scientific concepts, analogous to biological and chemical nomenclature. User licences could be standardized, pre-competitively. Et cetera. There are some sophisticated features around, but their wide adoption all too often suffers from the not-invented-here syndrome. Publishers, too, live in an ego-system of their own.

And it is not just in pre-competitive areas where fragmentation could be remedied. There are areas that you could call ‘post-competitive’, where collaborations between publishers and standardisations of practices and technologies could be of tremendous value to the scientific community, without costing the publishers much, or even anything. Take fragmentation again. Even if the subscription system were to be kept alive, publishers could, PubMedCentral-like, deposit all the journal articles they publish in discipline-central global databases, after, say, a year. The vast majority of the realizable economic value of annual subscriptions is realized within a year (that’s why the subscriptions are annual), and although open access after a year is not ideal, it would be a massive improvement over the current situation with very little cost to the publishers. And unlike PubMedCentral, the publishers should, collectively and proactively, set up and organize these open repositories. Asking funding agencies to help support the future maintenance of such repositories should not be too difficult. It's a conservation issue the responsibility for which cannot and should not be put on the shoulders of potentially fickle private enterprise. 

Another area of post-competitive collaboration, or at least cooperation, would be the so-called ‘enrichment’ of journal articles. In html as well as in their pdf manifestations. Every publisher seems to have its own ideas, and that’s all very well, but it doesn’t make life easier for researchers. Why not pool these ideas and apply them as widely as possible? There is hardly, if any, competitive cost to that, and a great deal of potential benefit to the scientific community, the professed aim of virtually all scientific publishers.

It clearly is not beyond the publishers to work together and create something very useful. Just look at CrossRef. It is an example worthy of being the paradigm for publisher attitudes and behaviour with regard to pre-competitive and post-competitive collaborations. 

Jan Velterop

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