What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? It’s only for academics.

I have just been at a wonderful conference in Canyons, Utah “Accelerating discovery: Human-computer symbiosis 50 years on” (https://sites.google.com/site/licklider50/ ). This drew from Lick’s vision – 50 years ago – of machines and humans interacting in a symbiosis to help each other by contributing the things they are good at. And I’ll write more about this.
But a surprisingly large amount of the meeting was about scientific “publishing”. In large part because it is critical to modern machine intelligence which looks at how knowledge can be used by computers. If we publish data, then computers can use that. (If we don’t, they can’t).
And most of the time we do not publish our work.
Surely “publish or perish”? If academics don’t publish, they don’t advance – and may get terminated.
True – but it’s often a special type of “publication”. Publication only readable by academics, because only they have libraries which subscribe to these publications. And often not even read by them. Used primarily for the purpose of evaluating the worth of academics and their institutions. And, as I have started to argue here and shall continue, it’s not even very good at doing this.
One of the scientists at licklider50 was Cameron Neylon – a great proponent of Open science (and who has talked about this at the PMR hackfest earlier). For “technical reasons” I have used an earlier version of his slides (2009) to illustrate my argument (http://www.slideshare.net/CameronNeylon/nesta-science-in-society. )
Here is his model of the scholarly research cycle

And how it can be linked to other scientists so that ideas and publications spread…

But the diagram also (unconsciously or serendipitously) highlights the primary problem with academic research:
It’s closed in that the communication process is primarily to other scientists (IN RICH UNIVERSITIES). It does not reach to scientists outside the “top” universities. One research project that I heard about at licklider50 was Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD). In India. Its aim is to discover new compounds active against tuberculosis. [I’ll write more later].
Because one person dies every three minutes of tuberculosis.
The people working on this project don’t even have roads to their houses. But they do have mobile connections. And they have a passionate desire to develop new medicines.
But they don’t have full access to the outputs of modern research. Because it’s closed to all except rich universities.
And it’s not just India. Here’s an example of a non-university scientist in the West. Sounds like a medical charity. They are seriously disadvantaged by the current system.

So what’s wrong?
The aims of many academic researchers. Somehow their vision has got transformed into a simple cycle:
  • Get funding
  • Do research
  • Publish in prestigious journal to get personal recognition, career advancement and more grants.
  • Go to 1

The primary purpose of publication for most academics is self-advancement.

Well, we don’t expect people to be complete altruists. But the pressure to succeed (strongly reinforced by the institutions) is so big that other aspects are secondary. There is no pressure to actually communicate the results of the research to the world in a usable form. (Remember it can cost 40 USD for 1 day’s read of a 2 page paper – that’s effectively disadvantaging to OSSD community, isn’t it?)
And more from Cameron:
“UK Scientists spend 12billion GBP ( 20 billion USD) of the taxpayers money”
Yes. And much of this goes into the closed, inward-looking cycle of academia. To publish research for the benefit of the university community. Not more generally.
So let’s re-examine the Cycle. It really looks like this:

If 12 billion is input into research then surely it should reach more people than the academics? Shouldn’t it reach everyone?
Some academics will argue this is a caricature – that their research is widely disseminated. But is it UNIVERSALLY disseminated?
But we are still locked into this dysfunctionality. People will publish in closed journals because it advances their career.
Bangladesh learnt earlier this year that it was too rich to continue to get free access to journals under the HINARI WHO scheme: http://www.scidev.net/en/features/hinari-and-the-dream-of-free-journal-access.html. But we shouldn’t even by discussing whether Bangladesh should have free access to medical research. Shouldn’t we be working for this as a basic human right?
Universities ought to be highlighting this problem and trying to change it. Instead they are compounding it by buying into the false values of scholarly publishing – that where you publish matters more than the benefit to humankind.
Where will change come from? I still think the system is on target for a crash. That’s not the most constructive plan….
I think the most realistic action is by funders being really tough on grantees. Absolutely insisting that their funding goes to making sure that outputs are OPEN. And by disadvantaged non-readers at all levels lobbying for change. After all most of us are taxpayers – shouldn’t we argue that our money should lead to better value?
(Please excuse formatting – I am working on it)

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3 Responses to What’s wrong with scholarly publishing? It’s only for academics.

  1. \I think the most realistic action is by funders being really tough on grantees. Absolutely insisting that their funding goes to making sure that outputs are OPEN.\
    I agree that this is the way forward. Many funding agencies exist to promote science, and nothing easier to achieve that by going Open.

  2. Pingback: Speculative Diction | More than a storm in a teacup: The debate on academic blogging | University Affairs

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