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Rich Apodaca: Closed Chemical Publishing and Disruptive Technology

Rich Apodaca, a founder member of the Blue Obelisk, has a thoughtful blog, DepthFirst. Besides the interesting stuff on programming – especially Ruby – there are useful injections from outside chemistry and IT. Here’s one:

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) currently lists 2420 Open Access scholarly journals. Of these, 52 currently fall under the category of chemistry. Although the organic chemistry subcategory only currently lists three journals, the general chemistry category actually contains several journals containing organic chemistry content, such as the Bulletin of the Korean Chemical Society, Chemical and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, and Molbank.Clearly, the chemistry journals included in DOAJ’s listings would not be considered to be in “the mainstream” by experts in the field. And that’s exactly the point. Innovation always happens at the margins.As Clayton Christensen puts it in his landmark book, The Innovator’s Dilemma:

As we shall see, the list of leading companies that failed when confronted with disruptive changes in technology and market structure is a long one. … One theme common to all of these failures, however, is that the decisions that led to failure were made when the leaders in question were widely regarded as among the best companies in the world.

Replacing the word “company” with “scientific journal” leads to an important hypothesis about the future of scientific publishing.

And on the subject of disruptive innovation itself, Christensen writes:

Occasionally, however, disruptive technologies emerge: innovations that result in worse product performance, at least in the near-term. Ironically, in each of the instances studied in this book, it was disruptive technologies that precipitated the leading firms’ failure.

It seems very unlikely that scientific publishing operates according to a different set of rules than any other technology-driven business. The coming wave of disruptive innovation will be dramatic, and the outcome completely predictable.

PMR: and elsewhere he points to a possible disruptive technology…
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Like everything else in information technology, the costs of setting up and maintaining a scientific journal are rapidly approaching zero. A growing assortment of Open Source journal management systems is available today. Recently, I was introduced to one of these packages by Egon Willighagen as part of my involvement with CDK News.

Open Journal Systems

Open Journal Systems (OJS) automates the process of manuscript submission, peer review, editorial review, article release, and article indexing. All of these elements are, of course, cited as major costs by established publishers intent on maintaining their current business models.

OJS appears to work in much the same way as automated systems being run by major publishers. In fact, OJS is already in use by more than 800 journals written in ten languages worldwide.

Did I mention that OJS is free software – as in speech? The developers of OJS have licensed their work under the GPL, giving publishers the ability to control every aspect of how their journal management system operates. Standing out from the crowd will no doubt be an essential component of staying competitive in a world in which almost anyone can start their own journal.


And there’s even better news: OJS has competition. Publishers can select from no fewer than seven open source journal management systems: DPubs; OpenACS; GAP; HyperJournal; SciX; Living Reviews ePubTk; and TOPAZ.

The Last Word

Open Source tools like Open Journal Systems have the potential to radically change the rules of the scientific publication game. By slashing the costs of both success and failure in scientific publication to almost zero, these systems are set to unleash an unprecedented wave of disruptive innovation – and not a moment too soon. What are the true costs of producing a quality Open Access scientific publication – and who pays? Will the idea of starting your own Open Access journal to address deficiencies with existing offerings catch on, especially in chemistry, chemical informatics, and computational chemistry? Before long, we will have answers to these questions.

PMR: Yes – these ideas are looking increasingly relevant and believable. In the same vein Steve Heller has wittingly and irreverently shown the immense power of disruptive technology. Two years ago, when the Blue Obelisk was founded, it probably looked like the margins. Does it still? Many will think yes – I don’t :-)

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