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.

11 Responses to “My opening statement at the Evolution Or Revolution debate”

  1. Andy Farke Says:

    Brilliantly said, Mike! The analogy to evolution really crystallized the issue for me…I suspect it will resonate well within our discipline, in ways that moral arguments sometimes haven’t (sadly).

  2. David Colquhoun Says:

    Excellent. Well said.
    The problem, of course is obsession with Nature etc. Let’s work on that now.

  3. William Miller Says:

    “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.”

    Of course, it’d be a much more boring world if instead of forests, we had giant one-millimeter-thick sheets-o-photosynthesis….

  4. arilab Says:

    Reblogged this on FG lab and commented:
    A very nice post explaining the evolution (and the dead end) of modern scientific publishing.

  5. Mark Robinson Says:

    Excellent opening statement, Mike. That is exactly what I think (which is why it is excellent). You got all of the major points in with short, sharp jabs. Obviously the winner of the debate was declared immediately after you’d finished speaking and you were able to get in a couple of early ones at a local watering hole.

    I think the old publishing trilobites have been given plenty of opportunity to change the way that they operate for the betterment of academics, researchers, and society in general. Instead they (as a whole) have responded with a mix of bewilderment, blustering, wheedling, whining, and downright nastiness.

    I was going to write that I look forward to these impediments to change going the way of the dinosaur but that would be inaccurate since dinosaurs are still with us. So I changed “dinosaurs” to “trilobites”.

  6. Great and emotive statement Mike! Disruptive technologies thrive at the expense of the confidence of the status quo thinkers. In publishing, there are some excellent people who are trying to change but they are faced with conservative thinking that begrudges risking the seemingly secure flow of funds. The rules are entrenched but are based on outmoded technologies and significant sunk costs. The newcomer advantage is to be nimble and divorced from the inertia of existing structures. Many fail but usually inspire and teach others. There is, of course, value in the existing structures, but it will be written off quickly as assets convert into liabilities. Buying new world companies will lend the appearance of modernity and adaptation, but like infusion of youth sera into an old body, will not have lasting effects as the new blood is drained by the old machinery. The next few years will be interesting to watch and we all have a stake in the outcome.

  7. […] a great experience — not only for the chance to meet online friends for the first time and make a strong opening statement, but also to hear important ideas batted back and forth — not only between the eight panel […]

  8. drgunn Says:

    Hilarious and clever. Funniest thing I’ve read in a while and I SO needed a laugh right about now. That said, I think PeerJ is an excellent example of how evolution can sometimes jump to the next local maximum, so good as this is, I can’t help feeling like it’s a bit of an “own goal” in your argumentation ;-)

    Wish I was there!

  9. drgunn Says:

    “The problem, of course is obsession with Nature etc. Let’s work on that now.”

    David, I’ve thought for years that altmetrics is essential to this, because it focuses on the article, not the journal, but I know you’re worried about new metrics. Other than weakening the journal as the container of value, what else can be done?

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, William. Of course, you’re right that PeerJ is not the very best system that we could ever have — I hope no-one took that idea away from my talk! But it certainly feels like a more than evolutionary change from what we’ve had up till now, as did PLOS ONE.

    I also think that the revolutionaries behind these big advances would generally be the first to point out how they don’t necessarily go far enough. As a matter of strategy, each big leap like this opens up new areas of speculation that reveal to us what kind of next leap could be possible. I very much doubt PeerJ could have succeeded had PLOS ONE not opened up the trail for it.

  11. […] There was a lot to enjoy about the day, including meeting Cameron Neylon of PLOS and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ, both for the first time. The highlight for me, unsurprisingly, was the debate at the Oxford Union in the evening, of which more in following posts. […]

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