November 22, 2014
Matt’s post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read [archived copy]. Here is the key passage that we keep coming back to:
Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.
In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.
… and of course as SV-POW! itself demonstrates, it doesn’t even need a WordPress install — you can just use the free online service.
This passage has made a lot of people very excited; and a lot other people very unhappy and even angry. There are several reasons for the widely differing responses, but I think one of the important ones is a pun on the word “publish”.
When Shirky uses the word, he is talking about making something public, available to the world. Which after all is its actual meaning.
But when academics use the word “publish” they usually mean something quite different — they mean the whole process that a research paper goes through between submission and a PDF appearing in a stable location (and in some cases, copies being printed). That process involves many other aspects besides actual publishing — something that in fact Shirky goes straight on to acknowledge:
The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.
And this is dead on target. Many writers need editors[*], to varying degrees. Fact-checking could be equated with peer-review, which we pretty much all agree is still very important. Most academic publishers do a certain amount of design (although I suspect that in the great majority of cases this is 99% automatic, and probably involves human judgement only in respect of where to position the illustrations).
But due to the historical accident that it used to be difficult and costly to make and distribute copies, all those other tasks — relatively inexpensive ones, back in the days when distribution was the expensive thing — have become bundled with the actual publishing. With hilarious consequences, as they say. You know, “hilarious” in the sense of “tragic, and breathtakingly frustrating”.
That’s why we’re stuck in an idiot world where, when we need someone to peer-review our manuscript, we usually trade away our copyright in exchange (and not even to the people who provide the expert review). If you stop and think about that for a moment, it makes absolutely no sense. When I recently wrote a book about Doctor Who, I had several people proofread it, but I didn’t hand over copyright to any of them. My ability to distribute copies was not hobbled by having had independent eyes look it over. There is no reason why it should have, and there is no reason why our ability to distribute copies of our academic works should be limited, either.
What we need is the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services we need — peer-review, layout design, reference linking — and have the work published freely.
Well, wouldja lookit that. Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access.
Is publishing just a button? Yes. Making things public is now trivial to do, and in fact much of what so-called publishers now do is labouring to prevent things from being public. But we do need other things apart from actual publishing — things that publishers have historically provided, for reasons that used to make sense but no longer do.
Exactly what those things are, and how extensive and important they are, is a discussion for another day, but they do exist.
[*] Note: the whole issue of academic publishing is further confused by another pun, this one on the word “editor”. When Shirky refers to editors, he means people who sharpen up an author’s prose — cutting passages, changing word choices, etc. Academic editors very rarely do that, and would be resented if they did. In our world, an “editor” is usually the nominally independent third party who solicits and evaluates peer-reviews, and makes the accept/reject decision. Do we need editors, in this academic sense? We’ll discuss that properly another time, but I’ll say now that I am inclined to think we do.
November 18, 2014
I’ve been reading The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats (Wood 1982) again. Here’s what he says on pages 98-99 about the strength of crocodiles, and what happens when they bite off more than they can chew.
The strength of the crocodile is quite appalling. Deraniyalga (1939) mentions a crocodile in N. Australia which seized and dragged into the river a magnificent 1 tonne Suffolk stallion which had recently been imported from England, despite the fact that this breed of horse can exert a pull of more than 2 tonnes, and there is at least one record of a full-grown black rhinoceros losing a tug-of-war with a big crocodile. Sometimes, however, even crocodiles over-estimate their strength. One day in the 1860s a hunted named Lesley was a witness when a saurian seized the hind-leg of a large bull African elephant while it was bathing in a river in Natal. The crocodile was promptly dragged up the bank by the enraged tusker and then squashed flat by one of its companions who had hurried to the rescue. The victorious elephant then picked up the bloody carcase with its trunk and lodged it in the fork of a nearby tree (Stokes, 1953). Oswell (1894) says he twice found the skeletons of crocodiles 15 ft 4.6 m up in trees by the river’s bank where they had been thrown by angry elephants. On another occasion a surprised crocodile suddenly found itself dangling 15 ft 4.6 m in mid-air when it foolishly seized a drinking giraffe by the head.
The idea of elephants lodging crocodile corpses up in trees seems too bizarre to be true, but seeing it independently attested by two witnesses makes me more ready to accept it. There’s plenty of Internet chatter about this happening, but I’ve not been able to find photos — or better yet, video — proving that it happens.
- Deraniyalga, P. 1939. The tetrapod reptiles of Ceylon, vol. 1: Testudinates and crocodilians. Colombo Nat. Mus., Ceylon.
- Oswell, W. Cotton. 1894. South Africa fifty years ago. Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes (Big Game Shooting), London.
- Stokes, C. W. 1953. Sanctuary. Cape Town.
- Wood, Gerald L. 1982. The Guinness Book of Animals Facts & Feats (3rd edition). Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex. 252 pp.
November 3, 2014
Just a quick post to link to all five (so far) installments of the “necks lie” series. I need this because I want to cite all the “necks lie” posts in a paper that I’ll shortly submit, and it seems better to cite a single page than four of them.
- Necks lie
- Necks lie, redux
- Sauropods still didn’t hold their necks in osteological neutral pose
- Hoatzins lie (and so do parrots)
- Herons lie (and so do shoebills)
I’ll update this post as and when we write more about lying necks.
October 28, 2014
It’s nearly two years since Alexander Brown wrote Open access: why academic publishers still add value for the Guardian, in which he listed ways that he feels publishers make a contribution. I wrote a lengthy comment in response — long enough that it got truncated at 5000 characters and I had to post a second comment with the tail end. At the time, I intended to turn that comment into an SV-POW! post, but for some reason I never did. Belatedly, here it is.
I’m a bit nonplussed by this article, in which a publisher lists a lot of important services that they claim to provide, nearly all of which turn out to be either not important at all (if not actively harmful) or provided for free by academics. Let’s go through them one by one, and see how they measure up against the average cost to academia of $5333 per paywalled academic paper.
strong, skilled editors to ensure that research can be universally understood
It is authors who make their work understood. As the author of a dozen published papers myself, I’ve certainly never received any help from an editor to make my work more comprehensible. But even if I had, this would have been done by a handling editor, who is a volunteer academic.
to recognise emerging fields and create new journals
Publisher don’t recognise emerging fields, researchers do. The last thing we need is more journals — there are already far more than anyone can keep track of. The more fruitful trend is the consolidation into a smaller number of more generalist journals, with tools for finding papers relevant to each individual researcher’s interest. (PLOS ONE exemplifies this.)
to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.
Journal brands are actively harmful to science. Please stop building and maintaining them.
recruitment and management of editorial review boards
Yes — this, at last, is a real cost in return for a real benefit.
coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record
This is done by volunteer academics at no cost to the publisher.
Yes, editorial board members and reviewers are by and large unpaid. However there are still scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature.
This seems more like confession of inefficiency than a claim of achievement. No doubt Google could double the number of managers they have to look after their engineers; but that would hardly result in doubling their output. The real question here should be why traditional publishers feel they need so many staff to do so little.
helping customers learn how best to find what they need
How does this happen? I have never had a publisher help me to find anything.
rigorous efforts to acquire content
This means sending spam emails inviting researchers to submit to journals. Like everyone else I know, I bin these on receipt. Researchers know what journals they want to publish in, and when they discover new journals it’s by word of mouth from trusted colleagues.
publicise the brilliance of our authors
Please. This never happens. Authors need to publicise their own work, with or without the help of their institutions, but certainly without significant help from publishers. Often the publisher’s most significant contribution to the publicity process is to release a paper prematurely, thus destroying any attempt at co-ordinating press embargoes.
Developing systems and platforms that can cost well into the tens of millions of dollars/pounds/euros
Again, the fact that a publisher spends this much only shows how inefficient they are. There are several free journal-management systems, including Annotum (used by PLOS Currents) and Open Journal Systems (used by 11,500 journals). If publishers don’t use these tools, that’s no reason to charge researchers more.
with the advent of mobile technology, the job becomes exponentially more difficult as we add “whenever they want it” to the list of our customers’ needs
I have no idea what this means. Any open-access journal’s article are always free “whenever they want it”, whatever device someone is reading on.
While the dissemination of research may not require ink and paper like it used to, distribution remains a very real cost
Yes. To pick a well-known large-scale example, it costs arXiv about $7 per paper to accept, host, archive and serve each of its papers indefinitely. A bit less than $5333, admittedly.
Also included in these activities are archive projects like the Springer Book Archives, a massive undertaking to digitise more than 150 years of previously unavailable titles
This is indeed a valuable programme. But it has nothing to do with ongoing publishing, and is a red herring in the current discussion.
for OA authors Springer deposits a researcher’s work into the institutional repositories these scientists are often required to use, helping to provide further access to scholarly works.
This is good. It saves the author a good fifteen minutes. £5333 well spent!
It is hard to imagine how anyone with an internet connection could do this with the speed, efficiency and added value with which publishers operate
On the contrary: it’s hard to understand how publishers manage to do it so inefficiently.
I just find all this baffling. Any researcher who has actually been through the process of publication knows that it is researchers who do all the significiant work: not only the research, but the writing, the preparation of illustrations, the editorial process, the peer-reviewing, the copy-editing, and increasingly even the typesetting. Hosting, archiving and replication can be done for $7 per paper. So I still don’t see where the publishers are adding any value that is of value to the academy.
October 17, 2014
This arrived on my Facebook wall, courtesy of Raul Diaz. For a split second I really did think the one second from the right was an older-model Carnegie Brachiosaurus toy.
I assume that, like me, you have people in your life that you don’t correspond with very often, and when you remember that they exist, it just makes you happy. Like, yeah, there’s a slightly higher chance that our species is going to make it, just because that person is out there in the world, doing what they do. Raul is in that category for me. He’s a herpetologist, but that term doesn’t really do him justice; Raul is into herps like Genghis Khan was into real estate acquisition.
Now he’s an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University and also teaches at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine (Raul, that is, not Genghis Khan). But I’ve known him since he was an undergrad. He was a student in one of my discussion sections for the evolution course at Berkeley. I had a tradition in all the classes I taught as a grad student: on the last class meeting I’d have people bring food and we’d have a little potluck. Raul showed up with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No-one else was partaking, so Raul and I spent 50 minutes drinking PBR and talking about descent with modification. Good times.
Oh, and the “tiny brontosauruses” are actually coatis, genus Nasua, raccoon relatives that range from the southwestern US to northern South America. Surprisingly, I don’t think that Darren has ever covered coatis in detail at TetZoo; maybe this will spur him into action.