What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? The MOTSI

NOTE: You may find my allegory of “Monsters of the Id” as irrelevant to scholarly publishing. If so, skip this. But do not doubt that scholarly publishing needs changing – drastically and soon and that I, at least, am committed to finding ways for that to happen. Before they happen outwoith our control.

I have used the term “Monsters of the Scholarly Id” (MOTSI) to describe the dysfunctionalities in scholarly publishing created unconsciously by academia, driven by its innate need for self-glorification. This may seem OTT so I’ll ramble through the background and the idea.

I start with my perception, shared by many, that scholarly publishing is increasingly dysfunctional. Obviously not everyone will agree. A CEO of a publishing company which sees revenues increase over the decade by 9% or so is not going to complain. I’ve blogged before on Richard Poynder interviewing Springer’s CEO (http://www.infotoday.com/it/jan11/Interview-with-Derk-Haank.shtml ) Read it – it chills me that this is purely about revenue – not any sense of providing useful goods in response to a market demand. A senior editor of a “successful” closed access journal isn’t going to complain – s/he probably gets paid expenses at least and lots of brownie points. A researcher with lots of citations and H-index karma isn’t going to complain. The 1-in-a-hundred researcher who has got a paper into NatSciCell may be able to get a job on the strength of it.

But many, many feel severe dysfunction. I’ll come to the causes later – they may not be so different from performing arts, or authors of fiction – the system does not allow everyone to succeed. But science is different. If we simply strive for the “excellent” (whatever that is) we neglect the good on which science is built. We have to separate the good from the unacceptable.

At a SciFoo camp about 3 years ago we had a discussion about scientific publishing (this has been a common theme at SciFoo). Two young attendees felt that the situation was so bad they were going to write an article for NatSci, but this never got written. But it’s a common theme on the blogosphere.

So what’s the Id? I grew up in an era when – I think – Freudian theory was almost regarded as proven fact. I believed in the id, ego and superego and I’ll replay them here using Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Id,_ego_and_super-ego ).

Id, ego and super-ego are the three parts of the psychic apparatus defined in Sigmund Freud’s
structural model of the psyche; they are the three theoretical constructs in terms of whose activity and interaction mental life is described. According to this model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the ego is the organised, realistic part; and the super-ego plays the critical and moralising role.[1]


The id comprises the unorganised part of the personality structure that contains the basic drives. The id acts according to the “pleasure principle“, seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure aroused by increases in instinctual tension.[2]

The id is unconscious by definition:

“It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organisation, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.”[3]

And this article specifically references my inspiration:

  • In the classic 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, the destructive forces at large on the planet Altair IV are finally revealed to be “monsters from the id” — destructive psychological urges unleashed upon the outside world through the operation of the Krells’ “mind-materialisation machine”. The example is of significance because of the unusual degree of insight it demonstrates: the creature eventually revealed follows classical psychoanalytic theory in being literally a dream-like primary process “condensation” of different animal parts. The plaster cast of its footprint, for example, reveals a feline pad combined with an avian claw. As a crew member observes, “Anywhere in the galaxy this is a nightmare”.


So my allegorical approach is to see the dysfunctions of scholarly publishing as arising from the subconscious of academia. The drive to achieve, the drive to be recognised and glorified. The need for gratification. And where uncontrolled, the id triumphs at the cost of rational behaviour.

Ultimately in Forbidden Planet the only solution is to destroy the planet, at a cost of destroying the good that the Krell have bequeathed. I’m not suggesting that we destroy scholarly publishing. But I think it possible that the monsters it has created will, if untackled, lead to catastrophic changes.

There is no super-ego of academia. Indeed it is not clear whether the uncoordinated behaviour of 10,000 institutions can have a super-ego – a controlling intelligence. For me it is tragic that Universities are not collectively addressing their role – in public – and getting feedback. Maybe they do this in closed national sessions with the great-and-the-good of government. Politicians have blogs and tweet. Stephen Fry tweets. Where is the vice-chancellor who reaches out to todays’ world? Where, indeed, are the senior academics? There are a few – a very few – and we may meet them at ScienceOnline in September in London. But academia does not care about the common wo/man. It looks inward, not outward. Where is the world leadership? And that is one of the causes of the problems.

So, while academia gazes inwards, the planet needs it more than ever. The sleepwalking has consequences outside scholarly publication. Where is the communal action to address climate change, resistance to disease, ageing, hunger and many other predictable problems. Why shouldn’t universities work together? But they are set up to compete, to generate their own feeling that they are better than their neighbours. And so the MOTSI are rife in scholarly publishing

What are the MOTSI? I probably haven’t thought of them all and I’m hoping for your input as well. The MOTSI are things that we have created unconsciously. They are not Frankenstein monsters or Mr Hydes which we have deliberately created and been unable to control. Because in those cases the creator is often aware of the dysfunction even if they cannot control it. The MOTSI have emerged during our sleep. Some are, in principle, controllable if we woke to the need to do so. They include, in no particular order:

  • The revenue-oriented publisher (which includes scholarly societies)
  • The “citation” and citation metrics (which I will set as homework)
  • Journal branding and the journal impact factor
  • New Journal SPAM
  • The PDF and the monoculture of publishing technology

I’d value your input on:

“What is a citation?”

This is not trivial. I do not know the answer. But if we are using this as a measure of a person’s worth (and hence their institution) we owe ourselves the responsibility of defining it.

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