My opening statement at the Evolution Or Revolution debate
April 12, 2013
I mentioned earlier that I was in Oxford yesterday — mostly to participate in the debate at the Oxford Union, “Evolution or Revolution in Science Communication?” I was on the revolution side, with Jason Hoyt (PeerJ), Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Pirate Party MEP) and Paul Wicks (Patientslikeme). The “evolution” side was represented by David Tempest (Elsevier), Graham Taylor (ex Publishers’ Association), Jason Wilde (Nature) and — rather surprisingly — Cameron Neylon (PLOS).
Here is my opening statement:
Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication
Mike Taylor, University of Bristol
“Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science” conference
Oxford, Thursday 11 April 2013.
In my academic life, I study the evolution of dinosaurs. I know a bit about evolution, and before I give my position in this evolution-or-revolution debate, I’d like to dispel a few evolutionary myths.
First, the Victorians liked to talk about the scala naturae, the great chain of being – a sequence beginning with the most primitive creatures, evolving their way up a ladder, in a neat straight line, to finally arrive at humans. In fact, evolution works in branching patterns: for every lineage that survives and prospers, a hundred are unsuccessful experiments that go extinct before ever making their mark.
Secondly, we like to think of “survival of the fittest” as an efficient process. But in fact it’s incredibly wasteful. Not one mutation is a thousand is beneficial. Most kill their owners before they’re even born. Natural selection works by choosing the fittest of what’s generated by random variation. It throws the dice repeatedly, but discards everything except the double sixes.
Finally, we think of the crucible of evolution as being a refinery that makes each species the best it can be. In truth, even the most successful species are ridiculously inefficient. The trees in a rainforest all invest vast resources in growing a hundred feet tall so they can reach the sunlight – but they only have to do that because all the other trees are doing the same. If they could agree not to do that, they’d have much more energy to use in other ways.
So evolution is mostly unsuccessful, spends most of its time going down blind alleys, is appallingly wasteful, and produces a stupidly inefficient end-product that wastes most of its energy on things that aren’t inherently useful.
Which makes it a perfect metaphor for scholarly publishing. *rim-shot*
The truth is, evolution is what got us into this mess. Just as humans can’t run fast because we’re locked into a gait where our heels are on the ground, so legacy publishers can’t up their game because they’re locked into ancient software and even older business models. They’re trapped on a local maximum. They can’t get down and across the adaptive valley to the higher peak.
That’s why legacy publishers give you electronic facsimiles of printed papers. The services they provide are essentially unchanged since the 1600s – with the sole exception that they now deliver papers using wires instead of by horse and cart. The product is the same. It’s a sequence of static pages in a tiny font with postage-stamp-sized greyscale images. And either it gets locked behind a paywall, or you buy its freedom for $3000.
We have to be able to do better.
The great thing is, doing better is not a hypothetical. BMC and PLOS have led the way over the last few years. Now we have PeerJ, which arrived from nowhere – not only with no assets, but crucially with no baggage. That’s tremendously liberating. It allowed three programmers to build their software infrastructure from the ground up in eight months. It’s universally considered much better than anything any of the old publishers have. And it gives you publications that are born digital, unlimited in length, full colour, and free to the world. And it does it for $99—not per paper, but per author, for life. Ninety-nine dollars!
That’s a revolution happening right in front of us.
Now if New Publisher A can do an objectively better job than Old Publisher B for one thirtieth of the cost, how can B possibly evolve to compete with A on a level playing field? They can’t. It’s a new kind of competition. They haven’t merely been out-evolved; it’s as though technologically advanced aliens have landed with teleporters and time-travel. The natives will peer curiously at them, but they won’t really even understand what they’re doing, let alone be able to compete with them. They’re outclassed. It’s dodos vs. hungry sailors with clubs.
We’ve seen what evolution gets us in scholarly publishing. It gets us in-press periods of a year or more. It gets us knowledge as an artificially scarce resource rather than a common good. It gets us publishers so wedded to barriers that they support the Research Works Act. It gets us $3000 facsimiles.
Evolution just can’t get the job done. We need revolution.