Off-topic: non-open academic publishing is dead
April 17, 2009
Because of my work on the recent Cetiosaurus petition, I’m on the ICZN mailing list. Apart from the brutally technical threads on specific nomenclatural cases, the favourite topics of that mailing list are electronic publication and in particular the long-term preservation on anything not printed onto compressed plant matter. In one such recent discussion, the LOCKSS system came up as possible solution, and I found myself replying with what quickly became a tangential rant. Here it is, in lightly edited form, for your amusement.
LOCKSS is a complete red herring here. Although the project acronym — Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe — implies that it’s all about replication, the project really exists to keep published work locked up — to prevent people reading it, keeping it hidden away to be opened up only in the event of something catastrophic happening like the publisher going out of business.
The reality, as we surely all know from our interactions with our colleagues within our own subdisciplines, is that everything that gets published and made available in electronic form is already replicated in lots of copies; and those copies are distributed far more widely than a monolithic system such as LOCKSS could ever achieve. Not only that, but the distribution requires (and has) no funding: individuals do it because it benefits them and their friends.
I know that for-profit publishers have reasons to pretend that closed-access publishing is still possible, but there is no reason for the rest of us to be blinded by that fantasy. The ship has sailed, the genie is out of the bottle, the can is open and the digital worms are everywhere. Everything is open access. Whether a publisher makes a PDF freely available or not, it is freely available to anyone who wants it — that’s the way it is in 2009, and nothing that anyone does can change that.
We can and should plan on the basis of reality, not on the basis of either history or of a publishers’ delusions.
So: the PDFs are out there, and will stay out there. Assuming that every personal computer in the world and every backup store isn’t simultaneously destroyed (which could only happen under circumstances that left us with much worse problems than nomenclature), what could happen to make us lose the accumulated literature available? Software rot?
Some people worry that the software that reads PDFs will decay so that all our PDFs become useless. Sorry, but that is another red herring. It is true that Adobe may at some point stop supporting their particular PDF-reading program, Acrobat. But that really is not important: the specifications for PDF are open, and there are many, many implementations of those specifications, including half a dozen open-source PDF readers that I could name off the top of my head. While there is a demand for them (i.e. while there are PDFs), these will never go away — and for the same reason the PDFs themselves will never go away: because they exist in hundreds, thousands of copies — quite likely millions, given that these readers tend to be distributed as part of operating systems.
Again, please understand: it simply does not matter if a particular proprietary PDF-handling program goes away, because the knowledge of how to read PDFs is itself distributed. That knowledge is in the public domain. (PDF was recently ratified as ISO 32000-1:2008). Lots Of Copies really do Keep Stuff Safe, and they don’t need LOCKSS to do it.
So where are we? We have PDFs, which will always be readable — and perhaps successor formats, which will also always be readable for the same reasons. We have PDFs-reading programs, which will also always be available. Both the publications and the software are distributed literally globally on a network which was designed to survive a direct nuclear strike.
Folks, it’s over. The digital revolution has happened. There is absolutely no rational reason in this day and age not to accept digital publication; in another ten years, the ICZN is going to look stupid for even having discussed this. And let’s hope they’re still around in ten years to feel dumb — because if they’re still insisting on paper, they’ll be history long before then. The Code is afforded legitimacy by the journals only because it serves them; if the Commission lets it become anachronistic the journals will desert it — or, if we’re lucky, they might pick and choose, following only those provisions of the code that suit them.
Let’s not be overtaken by the rush of events. Eyes open, face into the wind. Let’s go.
As it happens, Andy Farke has just published a list of Open Access Journals in Paleontology over on his Open Source Paleontologist web-site. That’s ironic timing since we were just in the process of establishing such a list over here on SV-POW!, by importing Matt’s old lists from his Ask Doctor Vector site. But better two lists than none, so we’re going ahead and published ours, too — not least because it contains links to individuals’ publication pages and miscellaneous collections as well as journals. With three of us over here to work on it, hopefully we can keep it up to date: do let us know in the comments of anything we’re missing. The lists are over here in the sidebar —->
Finally, here is Cervical U of Migeod’s Tendaguru brachiosaur BMNH R5973, informally known as “The Archbishop”, this time in anterior view. Copyright the Natural History Museum.