Whither Science Publishing?

About a month ago The Scientist published an interesting set of interviews with a set of scientists, publishers and LIS faculty on the future of scholarly publishing.

They called it Whither Science Publishing? with the subtitle "As we stand on the brink of a new scientific age, how researchers should best communicate their findings and innovations is hotly debated in the publishing trenches."

It's a pretty good set of questions and answers, provocative and thought provoking, with a few good shots especially from the scientist side of things. Unfortunately, I think it lacks a bit in terms of having an honest-to-goodness librarian as part of the panel.

Guess what? I'm taking a crack at the questions too!

Now, I'm far from the ideal librarian to throw his or her hat into the ring on this one, so if you think you have better answers to these questions than I do please feel free to chime in in the comments or on your own blog post. The more the merrier!

QUESTION 1: What are the main problems with the existing system for publishing scientific research?

There's lots of money floating around in the science publishing ecosystem, it's just not properly allocated. If we want a more open publishing ecosystem, we need to start spending our money to make that happen instead of spending our money to make it more closed.

The trick is to rejig the ecosystem such that the main players that are currently funding the ecosystem -- institutions via their libraries -- have a path forward that allows them to rationally reallocate their scarce resources from paying the current players (ie. mostly publishers) to keep articles closed to paying some new set of players to support an open system.

QUESTION 2: Are there problems with the existing peer-review system?

I think it's useful sometimes to see organizing peer review as separate from organizing publishing. Disconnecting them can take a bit of the heat out of the discussion. No matter what happens with publishing, peer review can happen just the same as before, it could happen differently or it could not happen at all. In that spirit, I'll refrain from answering this one.

QUESTION 3: Is open-access publishing the wave of the future? What problems plague open-access publishing as practiced now?

Yes, definitely. It solves too many problems with the existing ecosystem not to be fairly inevitable in at least some imaginable time frame.

Problems? Mainly that the incentive structure built into the scientific enterprise -- the way that prestige is awarded, mainly -- isn't aligned with promoting increased openness. Researchers behave in a rational way to maximize their own career returns which means favouring the incumbent publishers with their entrenched prestige regime.

QUESTION 4: Is there an as-yet-untried alternative to subscription-based or open-access publishing?

The goal of the OA movement is to make original scholarly research freely available to anyone that wants to read it -- and there is a wide range of OA business models to provide funding, such as institutional support, author fees and many others. The goal of toll access publishing is to make readers pay for reading that scholarship, either directly through personal subscriptions or per-article fees or indirectly through institutional subscriptions of some sort.

What is the third way? I guess that would revolve around finding a new source of funding for supporting science communication that isn't libraries or individual but that doesn't provide open access. I'm not sure what that is, but I imagine that it could entail government funding agencies.

QUESTION 5: Should the source of funding for scientific research determine how manuscripts arising from that work are published?

To a large degree, yes. Publicly funded research should be publicly available. Funding agencies who use tax payer money should ultimately require that all the tax payers who funded the research should be able to read it. That all the billions of citizens of the world who didn't pay taxes in a particular jurisdiction can also freely access the research funded within that jurisdiction is a huge bonus. Research that's funded through private foundations or for-profit corporations wouldn't be bound by those same requirements, although one would imagine that most non-profit foundations would see the benefit of Open Access in a way that we wouldn't expect of for-profits.

QUESTION 6: If you could change one thing about how scientific research is published right now, what would it be?

If I could snap my fingers and change everything all at once, I would automatically convert the funding model of all scholarly publishing to a mix of the arXiv and SCOAP3 models. As far as platform is concerned, I would implement a range of disciplinary and institutional repositories such at arXiv or SSRN, hosted by consortia of libraries. The repositories would hold iterative versions of articles, atom-level research reports, figures, data, audio, video and gray literature such a presentations and code and whatever else you can imagine. Local support for data curation and other services would be provided by local libraries.

Peer review and community building could be provided by some sort of overlay journal/blogging/social network system but that would vary by discipline. Prestige allocation would be managed by a system of metrics that would be open, diverse, flexible and discipline-based.

QUESTION 7: What will the scholarly publishing landscape look like in 10 years?

In a 10 year time frame, sometimes it looks simultaneously like everything has changed and that nothing has changed. I suspect we'll still have that feeling in 10 years. In my view, the most important piece of the puzzle is the incentive structure of science that is so intimately tied to the legacy publishing system. Sadly that's the kind of thing that tends to change one funeral at a time.

But I think it's safe to say that in 10 year's time we will definitely start to see attachment to journals and individual articles per se starting to fade, with a move to a looser, more iterative, more atomic system. We will definitely see vastly more open access, open data and open notebooks although perhaps not yet to any sort of ultimate tipping point. Although I would hope that at least a few tipping points will be within view in that time frame.

Libraries will still have a vital role in the teaching and learning missions of higher education, but our role in the scholarly communications ecosystem is less secure. It's our job to make sure we find a role in funding, promoting, curating and in building the technical and social infrastructure of the coming Open Access universe. The opportunities are vast and within our reach.

5 responses so far

  • Jim A. says:

    I agree heartily with your answer to #2. We hear the publishers often citing peer-review as a justification for the current model and I just don't see it. It is in no way clear to me that peer review is inextricably linked with for profit publishers. Now if we're going to completely revamp the model of scholarly communication, there certainly is some benefit to looking at peer review or possible alternate means of preemptive filtering of articles. But keeping peer review unchanged in an open access model is perfectly possible.

  • John R Helliwell says:

    A very thoughtful and detailed piece, which I generally agree with. As a practising research scientist just to mention though that, as with most researchers, approx 1/4 of my funding agency proposals get funded. These will get Gold OA fees resources in future, upto a budget limit yet to be seen. I try though to progress the 3/4 of my proposals that don't get funded; this is done piecemeal, by myself and or with my students, but on a starvation budget. It seems that with OA arriving like a tidal wave no longer will readers pay, and for 3/4 of my research results I can't afford to pay. What is the answer? I have decided it is a preprint server including links to the data. For some small fraction of my preprints I will try and proceed to peer reviewed publication via an experienced journal Editor ie who I trust to do a good job in reaching a version that I would in future call a milestone version. The other preprints would be subject to public comment, if anyone should care to take a deep enough interest, which one hopes would be a good fraction of the time!

    • John Dupuis says:

      Hi John, Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Maybe something like PeerJ might be the right home for those falling-through-the-cracks works where there isn't APC funding?

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