Thursday, February 23, 2012

They’re changing a clause, and even some laws, yet everything stays the way it was.

The title captures the feeling of frustration with the often glacial pace of changes we regard as necessary and inevitable. So we try to influence the speed of change, and one time-honoured tool we take out of the box is the boycott. Boycotts are a way to get things off your chest; even to get some guilt relief, but although there are notable exceptions, they rarely change things fundamentally. Take the Elsevier Science boycott. I understand the feeling behind it, but if their prices were reduced to half of what they are now, or even if they went out of business, would that really be a solution to the problems with which scientific communication wrestles? As many a boycott does, this one, too, is likely to result in ‘changing a clause, changing some laws, yet everything staying the way it was’.

A boycott doesn’t alter the fact that we view publishers as publishers. That's how they view themselves, too. However, that is the underlying problem. Perhaps publishers were publishers, in the past, but they are no longer. Any dissemination of knowledge that results from their activities is not much more than a side effect. No, publishers’ role is not to ‘publish’; it is to feed the need of the scientific ego-system for public approbation, and of its officialdom for proxies for validation and scientific prowess assessment in order to make their decisions about tenure, promotion and grants easier and swifter.

Crazy line of thought, no? Well, maybe, but look at what happens in physics. The actual publishing – dissemination of information and knowledge – takes place by posting in arXiv. Yet a good portion of articles in arXiv – quite possibly the majority, does anyone have the numbers? – are subsequently submitted to journals and formally ‘published’. Why? Well, "peer review" is the stock answer. And acquiring impact factors (even though especially in physics one would expect scientists to pay heed to Einstein’s dictum that “not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted”).

Clearly, officialdom in physics is prepared to pay, to the tune of thousands of dollars per article, for the organization of the peer review ritual and the acquisition of impact factor ‘tags’ that come with formal publication of a ‘version of record’. So be it. If officialdom perceives these things as necessary and is willing to pay, ‘publishers’ are of course happy to provide them.

But one of the biggest problems in science communication, the free flow of information, seems to have been solved in physics, as arXiv is completely open. If arXiv-like platforms were to exist in other disciplines as well, and if a cultural expectation were to emerge that papers be posted on those platforms before submission to journals, and their posting be accepted as a priority claim, we would have achieved free flow of information in those other areas as well.

I suspect that the essence of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) is about achieving a situation like the one that exists in physics with arXiv. Given that arXiv has done no discernable damage to publishers (at least as far as I’m aware, and, reportedly, also according to the publishing arms of the AmericanPhysical Society and the UK Institute of Physics), pushing for the Research Works Act (RWA) instead of making the case for extending an arXiv-like ‘preprint’ system to disciplines beyond physics seems an extraordinary lapse of good judgement.

On the other hand, the concern that publishers have about the academic community not being willing for long to pay the sort of money they now do for what is little more than feeding the officialdom monster, is a realistic concern. Unfortunately for them, stopping the evolution of science communication in its tracks is simply not an option. Perhaps the current boycott is one of the rare successful ones, and perhaps it will spur publishers on to reconsider their role and position. There are definitely ways for a publisher to play a beneficial role. Just a small example: I was told of a recent case where the peer reviewer expressed his frustration with the words “Imagine if before it was sent to me for review a professional editor actually read all 40 pages and discovered the heinous number of basic grammatical issues, spelling errors, and typos, and sent it back to the authors or to an English correction service before I had to spend more time on that, rather than on the actual scientific content.”

Personally, I think open arXiv-like set-ups in disciplines other than physics are the way forward. Publishers should – and truly forward-looking ones may – establish those themselves, if they don’t want to be reduced to an afterthought in the scientific communication game.

We live in hope, though not holding our breath.

Jan Velterop

1 comment:

  1. Jan, you asked, "Yet a good portion of articles in arXiv – quite possibly the majority, does anyone have the numbers? – are subsequently submitted to journals and formally ‘published’."

    I came across this where the percentage of papers in arXiv subsequently published in scholarly journals was apparently found to be about half (47.1%). Haven’t been able to track down the full article to check methodology and other details but passing on in case of use.

    You might also be interested in a post by Phil Davis on the Scholarly Kitchen 17 June 2009, where he reported on a 2009 CSE meeting presentation looking at published physics papers and seeing how many had been a preprint in arXiV - the percentage of research articles deposited to arXiv varied by physics subfield. The links there are broken, but you can find Tim Ingoldsby’s (AIP) presentation 'Physics Journals and the arXiv: What is Myth and What is Reality?' here.

    As an aside, it seems that gaming goes on even in arXiv. Ginsparg mentions this in an article reflecting on arXiv last year, its 20th anniversary, saying "On arXiv, we have seen some of the unintended effects of an entire global research community ingesting the same information from the same interface on a daily basis. The order in which new preprint submissions are displayed in the daily alert, if only for a single day, strongly affects the readership on that day and leaves a measurable trace in the citation record fully six years later2, 3. Some researchers, wise to this, time their submissions to arrive just after the daily afternoon deadline to maximize their prominence in the next day's mailing. "