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

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

Publishers are not evil

Commercial publishers, as a class, are not evil. To think so is wrong. They have just been doing what the scientific community can't or won't do by itself. And like most businesses, they charge what they can get away with. It’s known as ‘the market’. They can’t be criticised for existing and functioning in a perfectly legal capitalist market and regulatory environment. That doesn’t mean they can’t be criticised. Individual publishers can be criticised for their actions and inactions. As an industry, among the things they can be criticised for are not evolving fast enough, given the environmental change that the web has brought about. But so can the academic community. The reliance on old and now effectively dysfunctional systems and habits from a bygone era is mutual.

Centuries ago, in Europe, non-Christians were forbidden to belong to the guilds, which made it impossible for them to be any kind of craftsman, essentially leaving them with few other options than being an unskilled labourer, trader, or money lender. So some became very wealthy and thus became the target of envy. And accused of usury and the like. Just for doing the only thing they were allowed to do and society needed someone to do. It’s more complicated than that, but it captures the essence.

The relevance of this to science publishing? Well, at a certain point, when science had grown into a sizeable, professional and global pursuit, academics didn’t, or couldn’t, organise publishing properly anymore on that global scale. University presses were, by definition, rather local, and so were scientific societies. Commercial publishers stepped into the breach, some became very wealthy, and are now the target of envy. Or at least of criticism of their wealth. And accused of greed and the like. Just for doing some of the things the academic community needs or thinks it needs, in the environment of a ‘market’ (starting in the 1950’s with e.g. internationalisation of science communication; abolishing the sort of author charges the scientific societies were levying for their journals, standardisation of article structures, language, et cetera).

Lesson: if you leave it to outsiders to provide your essential services, because you can’t, or won’t, truly assimilate and embed those outsiders, and provide the services from within your own circles, you risk losing control and you cannot blame the outsiders for taking the opportunities you give them.

Jan Velterop

PS. The first Open Access publisher was a commercial publisher. The largest publisher of Open Access articles today is a commercial publisher. Why are there not more scientist-led initiatives like PLoS?