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A Scientist and the Web


What is wrong with Scientific Publishing and can we put it right before it is too late?

I sat down today to write code and and found that I couldn’t – I had to write about science publishing, so here goes. I intend this will be the first of several posts. I often blog in forceful style (rant?) but here will try to be as objective as possible. I’d like to start a discussion and engage responsible STM publishers. I’d like to see if we can define what the basis of publishing is. Why? And how?

But I am going to start with a strong assertion. STM publishing is seriously broken and getting worse. It is being driven by forces largely outwith the directing influence of the scientific community (although not necessarily outwith their ultimate control). This is manifested by activities which have nothing (in my view) to do with science, and I will explain that.

A brief topical aside. Non-UK readers may not realize the enormity of what has happened in the UK and what the lesson is for scientific publishers. The News Of the World – a popular UK newspaper – broke the law repeatedly by phone-hacking of victims of crime. Public outrage exploded and with 24 hours a 150-year old newspaper had ceased to be. That is the power of the masses – it is too rarely exercised – but when it happens it can be unstoppable. The “public” had existed in a cosy, if unpleasant, symbiosis with the publisher, eagerly demanding new salacious material and paying for it. But when the newspaper overstepped … a bang, not a whimper! There were no discussions, no slow decline. A week ago there were the usual rumblings, but no one predicted this – at least in public. The power of the crowd in a media-literate society is frighteningly rapid. The same fate can await complacency in STM.

That is the potential power that the scientific and academic community has over scholarly publishers. (In this post I am going to restrict discussion to serials publishers in STM). I’ll state the simple premise:

  • Unless the process of scientific publication is rapidly and effectively revised there will be a catastrophic crash. It will be unpredictable in both its timing, speed and nature. It will destroy some of the current participants. It will change parts of the scientific process and will change academia.

I have no special knowledge so that’s a Cassandra-like statement (although I have no wish to play that role). I am surprised how few of my general colleagues (e.g. not the OKF) share my concerns about the state of STM publishing. They do not realise the dystopia we are already in and its apparently inexorable progress.

Before you switch off from this analysis, I intend to offer constructive dialogue to all parties. I know publishers read this blog (I was rung up yesterday by the Marketing Director of the RSC in response to yesterday’s blog.) I wish, honestly and constructively to analyse, the benefits that STM publishers can provide. Some of them do provide good services to science, but I find it difficult to see value from many others. They have the chance, if they wish to answer some (I hope) objective questions.

Similarly I have been critical of academic libraries, but do not see them as the cause. They should have altered us earlier to problems instead of acquiescing to so much of the dystopia. They are part, but only part, of the solution.

I have therefore come, perhaps belatedly, to the conclusion that the crisis is of our (academia’s) making. I used to blame the publishers and I still can and will when appropriate. (The manufacture and sale of fake journals is inexcusable – as bad as Murdoch’s phone hacking). But the publishers are a symptom of our disease, not the cause. Cassius says:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

The academic system (in which I include public funders) has, by default, given away a significant part of its decision-making to the publishing industry. (I use “industry” to include non-profits such as learned societies, and like all industries there are extremes of good and bad practices). This gifting has been done gradually, over about 2 decades, without any conscious decisions by academia, and without – in the beginning – any conscious strategy from the publishers. The gifts have all been oneway – from academia to industry, which has grown in both wealth and power at the expense of academia. In effect academia has unconsciously stood by, dreaming, during the creation of a 10 billion USD industry, almost all of whose revenues come from academia, frequently to their detriment. Like Morbius in Forbidden Planet we have created our own monsters.

So I will start with some axioms, on which future posts may build. If we can all agree then this serves as a basis for future decision making

  • Science and scientists have a need and a duty to publish their work.
  • Funders rightly and increasingly require this in a formal manner.
  • This work should be available to everyone on the planet. Ideally the costs incurred in doing so should be invisible to the reader.
  • The purpose of publication in whatever degree of formality is:
  1. To establish priority of the work
  2. To communicate the work to any who wishes to consume it
  3. To offer the work for formal and informal peer-review and to respond to discourse
  4. To allow the work to be repeated, especially for falsifiability
  5. To allow the work to be built on by others
  6. To preserve the work

I’d like to formalize this list – it’s a first draft and I want to make sure we haven’t omitted anything. I’d also like to know from any party, especially a publisher, if they disagree. There are publishers, for example, who believe that part of the process of publication is to restrict access.

I will say again; let us be careful because this rather enticing statement that everybody should be able to see everything could lead to chaos. Speak to people in the medical profession, and they will say the last thing they want are people who may have illnesses reading this information, marching into surgeries and asking things. We need to be careful with this very, very high-level information. (Dr John Jarvis, Senior Vice President, Europe, Managing Director, Wiley Europe Limited) examined by Ian Gibsons select Committee in the House of Commons, Westminster, UK, 2004-03-01) (

I hope that 7 years have removed this attitude.

The historical purposes of publication did not include bibliometric evaluation of the publication as a means of assessing scientists or institutions. This is the monster we have allowed to be born and which we must now control. I do not believe it should be part of the formal reasons for publication. And if it retreats to informality we should take formal steps to control it.

So I’d be grateful for reactions, in the comments section. I will not edit and will attempt to keep comments objective.

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