What’s wrong with Scholarly Publishing? Interim observations and perhaps a solution.

I have been blogging for 3 weeks on the malaise in scholarly publishing. While doing this I have talked to a number of people and got some blog feedback. I think I am more worried and less sure than when I started.

There’s a horrible similarity between the problems of SP and the current financial cataclysm. Each has created a set of values which is increasingly complex to normal people, and which lead recursively to implosion. On the Digital Curation list Simon Fenton-Jones writes:

To give the conversation about research a little more gravitas, let me point out that the 5% that each reader lost from the value of their pension fund
last week, will lead to an education in what happens when an entire economic system is founded on a financial instrument called a Credit Default Swap.

I looked up CDS on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credit_default_swap )and found:

This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Please improve this article to make it understandable to non-experts, without removing the technical details. (November 2010)

And indeed it was (myself included). SFJ continues

Having lost a wife to the Big C, and discovering less than half of cancer research can be found easily, i write to relieve myself of hate (of existing institutions),

The point is that academia has – wittingly or unwittingly – created a process and market in things that average people do not understand. Perhaps the worst is the worship of the journal and its Impact Factor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_factor ).

The impact factor, often abbreviated IF, is a measure reflecting the average number of citations to articles published in science and social science journals.


a citation is an abbreviated alphanumeric expression (e.g. [Newell84]) embedded in the body of an intellectual work that denotes an entry in the bibliographic references section of the work for the purpose of acknowledging the relevance of the works of others to the topic of discussion at the spot where the citation appears.

The point I am making is that the previous two sentences describe in large part how we evaluate academic work. How many “average people” understand them? As I have already blogged, the vast majority of research funding comes from public sources. I dislike the term “taxpayer” as it is not politically neutral, but as academics we have a duty to show those who provide the money that we are producing value. If someone is suffering from a disease, is it really acceptable to tell them that they cannot read the research they have funded because *I* want to publish where it advance my career best? And yet this is a universal choice facing academics:

Do I publish where it is openly visible or where it advances my career and institutional standings?

I have sympathy for the young researchers and would not try to urge them to break ranks. I have no sympathy for senior academics who have nothing to lose by trying to change the system.

Not all academic work is immediately “useful” and even that that appears to be may have a short life. I am not saying we should change to obviously utilitarian research, although I think research is desperately needed to prevent a number of foreseeable disasters on the planet. I am simply saying:

Reward research which is openly visible and which strives to allow reuse of the research. Do not reward research which is closed.

It is only because we have built a false value system that it is so hard to make the change. As long as we continue to support the glory that comes from “prestigious publication” that only a tiny fraction of people can read, we continue to deprive the world of the hundreds of billions of dollars put each year into “academic” research.

How we get there I do not know, any more than I know how to stop burning petroleum into the atmosphere. The best I can do is to help to promote consciousness of the need for change and to publicize any solutions that look good. I also think that events may force our hand. I will not be surprised if a major closed publisher crashes, especially in the present financial crisis. Crashes are good for change, but only if we are prepared (which we are not). In any case funders should insist on open publication. Academics will hate them, but I suspect the “taxpayer” will approve. R1

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2 Responses to What’s wrong with Scholarly Publishing? Interim observations and perhaps a solution.

  1. AbhikSeal says:

    The open research must show its potency . Its upon the open academic researchers who would build a strong community. Till now a days many closed researches have showed promise in drug design to technology development

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Abhik,
      I have no doubt that the Open Research community – in many disciplines – will start to show its strength. It will have many detractors and needs courage and determination.

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