The most important essay on scholarly publication this week

November 21, 2014

metaphor

…is not actually about scholarly publication. It’s Steve Albini’s keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference. It’s about the music industry, and how the internet transformed it from a restrictive, top-down oligarchy that mostly benefited middlemen into a more open, level, vibrant ecosystem where artists can get worldwide exposure for free, and yet are often compensated better than they were under the old system. Go read it, and then think about this:

Once the music world met the internet, the problem of getting information from musicians (authors) to listeners (readers) didn’t require any central planning to solve. What little building needed to happen was taken care of by people who were just happy to let the internet work the way it was designed to, and the way it works the most naturally: it makes sharing information almost effortless. Publishers (record labels) still exist, because they offer certain conveniences, but few people are under the delusion that they are necessary.

dead horse

Over here in academia, we’ve already spent more than a decade wringing our hands over how to manage the shift from a barrier-based publishing world to one based on OA. We’ve put so much time and effort and thought into the problem of how to “save” or “transform” scholarly publishing. Why do we do that? Why not just walk away? Publishing is a button, and anything that we do to lend it any more importance–anything we feed it, in terms of time, effort, energy, or regard–is wasted. Wasted because we deliberately ignore the new reality in favor of propping up a system that performed a job that no-one needs done anymore. I keep wondering when the hell we’re all going to wake up, and start sharing our work the way that musicians and listeners share digital music.

And yet even out here on the crazy-eyed, axe-wielding fringe of the OA movement, we are still conservative. Zen Faulkes published a paper on his blog, and he did it 26 months ago, which is a near eternity in the Shiny Digital Future (it’s 13.4% of the lifespan to date of Google). Mike and I have admired that move, and talk about it, but we haven’t done it. Why not? We could even solicit peer reviews from people we know to be tough but fair reviewers. We all do unpaid editorial and review work for publishers, why not for each other directly? It’s like we’re thinking, “Okay, okay, I’ll review this paper, but only if there’s a publisher somewhere that will benefit from my unpaid labor!”

I suppose that for us, one answer is that PeerJ has given us other options that are just as easy as blogging, like posting preprints. So I am a bit torn: I like PeerJ, I support it, I have several papers in the pipeline that I’m planning on sending there. It offers certain conveniences, like sticking DOIs on everything for us, and tracking all of our metrics. But do we need PeerJ? I wonder if it is just the methadone that will help ease us out of our sad addiction to publishers.

Okay we get it already

Bonus observation: don’t just translate Albini’s thoughts on music to scholarly publishing, also try doing the reverse. It becomes pretty clear that the central theme of The Scholarly Kitchen is, “How will poor, helpless music listeners survive without all the middlemen to tell them what to listen to? They’ll be so lost.” Keep polishing that brass, guys, and thanks for the patronization!

The photos are of the dodo skeleton in the Yorkshire Museum, which I saw at SVPCA back in September. If you’re a dodo-phile like me, you should consider supporting Leon Claessens’s, Kenneth Rijsdijk’s, and Hanneke Meijer’s quest to better understand the skull and feeding mechanics of dodos. Their crowdfunding campaign runs through the end of the year–please go check it out.

Advertisements

21 Responses to “The most important essay on scholarly publication this week”

  1. Michael Richmond Says:

    In a world in which independently wealthy gentleman-scientists fund their own research trips and pay their apprentices, they might disseminate their work via the Internet and skip the publishers.

    In a world in which scientists ask for money from government agencies and depend on salaries from their employers to do their work, those scientists will have to justify their existence and their requests. Publishers make the job easier for governments and universities by filtering out some fraction of the crazy ideas and by providing simple numerical systems to justify funding and hiring decisions.

    Imagine being a member on a panel charged with awarding a grant to some scientist in field X if there were no journals collecting papers in X. In order to do your job properly, you would have to track down all the papers in all the blogs and web pages, find the references which might be on OTHER blogs and web pages, and then read all that material.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Publishing in a journal also gives a paper a modicum of legitimacy, as it implies (in most cases) that several people have looked over it and found it decent. If you don’t have some sort of aggregate venue for publication, how do you distinguish between the results of a project that has really taken an in-depth look at the material and someone who is basically just shouting their opinion out into the ether. Sure, they could say that they had someone look over it, but…you know…people lie.

    Another important aspect of publishing and peer-review is that it keeps researchers from cutting corners. I have seen several cases where researchers have tried to publish low-quality, “bigfoot-worthy” images in an intentional attempt to keep others from getting data from their results but enough to get their papers consider “valid”. Some got through (mostly due to fame factor of the author), but others got shut down hard, and a much better paper came out of it.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Imagine being a member on a panel charged with awarding a grant to some scientist in field X if there were no journals collecting papers in X.

    Yeah. It would be pretty tough. You’d need to understand the field you’re responsible for funding, and actually read research! What an intolerable burden that would be.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    In a world in which scientists ask for money from government agencies and depend on salaries from their employers to do their work, those scientists will have to justify their existence and their requests.

    Well, it depends on the branch of science. Biochemistry and genomics are more like the old music scene a few decades ago, where you had a to have a lot of expensive equipment to have a recording (i.e., data) at all. Some branches of paleontology are like that, too. But some of us are fortunate in that our work costs almost nothing–as long as I have a digital camera, a tape measure, and a plane ticket, I’m good to go. I suspect the same is true of a few other areas in natural history; I have some friends in the animal behavior world who basically need to be able to sit out in the woods with binoculars for days at a time. These fields where it’s super cheap to get data are more like the new music scene, where passable recording equipment costs next to nothing. Unfortunately, there’s probably no mechanism for the internet and better personal computers to replace bench setups for fiddling with buckytubes, or 10m telescopes on Mauna Kea. So some branches of science will always be hostage to some kind of public funding on the scale of tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars. It seems inevitable that in those fields it will be almost impossible to get rid of the middlemen.

    Publishers make the job easier for governments and universities

    Yes, like those. It’s telling that you were able to frame this part of the argument without reference to either researchers or readers.

    how do you distinguish between the results of a project that has really taken an in-depth look at the material and someone who is basically just shouting their opinion out into the ether.

    1. How do you distinguish between music that has been produced by a label and someone who hacked something together in their garage and is basically just shouting it into the ether? Well, you listen to it, and you form an opinion about who is worth listening to based on the quality of the work–just as we do in science. And I don’t think this formulation is optimizing the right variable anyway–I don’t care how much time someone has invested in a project, I care about whether or not they’re right (just like I care more about whether music is actually good than about how much money went into producing it). The BANDits have certainly taken an in-depth look at amniote respiration, but if Leon Claessens started just shouting his opinions into the ether, those opinions would undoubtedly be more accurate, interesting, and valuable.

    2. The current publishing industry is a very imperfect defense against people broadcasting nonsense–see the Aetogate saga, for example, or Quick and Ruben (2009) on dinosaur breathing. But “science spam” like that does not keep the rest of us from making progress, because we learn to tune out worthless noise–just like music listeners.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    The counter-arguments so far basically boil down to, “The publishing industry provides a valuable level of filtering”. I actually agree with this. I just don’t think that level of filtering requires a whole industry that annually leeches billions of dollars out of the public coffers. Yes, we need a filter, but it does not follow that we need a publishing industry to do that filtering.

    The aura of authority that emanates from publishers in mysterious. The handling editors for my last four paleo papers were John Hutchinson, Brian Beatty, and Peter Dodson–all people I’m happy to count as friends, or at least very friendly acquaintances. And almost all of the reviewers were other friends. But nobody thinks (or at least no-one has yet said) that my work sucks just because it was edited and reviewed by my friends, probably in large part because they were all doing that work on behalf of a publisher. So the problem is even worse than I said in the post–we’ll not only do this work on behalf of publishers, we’ll invest our trust in it for the same reason. Why?

    It seems to me that a peer-to-peer editing and reviewing system could give us almost all of the benefits of traditional publishers, and save us all a few billion at the same time. Given the massive financial benefit, I’m kind of surprised that someone hasn’t hacked this together already. (You could argue that PeerJ is an attempt to do something like this, charging just enough money to pay for programming and bandwidth, and we all missed it because it showed up walking and quacking like a journal.)


  6. “Why not just walk away? Publishing is a button…”

    Because even Shirkey’s quote went on to say, “We still need…” followed by a pretty long list. I explored this question in this blog post:
    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2014/04/publishing-may-be-button-but-publishing.html

  7. Anonymous Says:

    One big difference between science and the music industry is that if a paper falls through the cracks of publishing and doesn’t become widely read, it can have disasterous consequences. If you miss out on some hip new underground band, its a shame, but you can always listen to their music later. There is no time or priority component to music. By contrast, in scientific publishing, if you miss some obscure paper, you might end up naming some taxon or clade that has already been named or finding some principle that has already been discovered. True, some of this already happens due to small, in-house journals, but its far from the free-for-all that would happen if everyone were to publish independently.

    Which leads to the question, if everyone went to blogs and such, how would we determine whether the naming of a new taxon is valid or not? If anyone can just make a wordpress blog and nane every single specimen they want, what’s to stop taxonomic vandalism like Darren has discussed for herps?

    I think the issue here is that journals, while having their fair share of problems, do provide some useful benefits like providing a point for the rest of the community to rally around and make it easier and more efficient for scientists to find useful papers. The problems seem to be more focused on accessibility and the time it takes to publish than “journals exist”. Blogs are useful in many respects, but in essence the functions they perform (such as bringing attention to scandals like Aetogate, which might otherwise be swept under the table) are different from that of journals (which is to present more formal and summary research on a topic, rather than having to slog through pages of blog posts and comments).

  8. Anonymous Says:

    “How do you distinguish between music that has been produced by a label and someone who hacked something together in their garage and is basically just shouting it into the ether? Well, you listen to it, and you form an opinion about who is worth listening to based on the quality of the work–just as we do in science. And I don’t think this formulation is optimizing the right variable anyway–I don’t care how much time someone has invested in a project, I care about whether or not they’re right (just like I care more about whether music is actually good than about how much money went into producing it). The BANDits have certainly taken an in-depth look at amniote respiration, but if Leon Claessens started just shouting his opinions into the ether, those opinions would undoubtedly be more accurate, interesting, and valuable.”

    This is what I meant, I just did not say it properly. How do you distinguish between someone who knows what they’re talking about and someone who’s talking complete nonsense (or worse, actually falsifying information). Keep in mind that “learning to tune them out” isn’t always the best strategy. In this day and age, its often easier to flood a reader with misinformation if you want to keep them from making a good decision.

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Because even Shirkey’s quote went on to say, “We still need…” followed by a pretty long list

    Sure, there are things we need. It doesn’t follow that we need a publishing industry to provide them. They could be provided by the community for a lot less money than we’re spending right now.

    some of this already happens due to small, in-house journals, but its far from the free-for-all that would happen if everyone were to publish independently.

    I think that given the vast number and variable quality of journals, it’s pretty close to a free-for-all already. And yet somehow we continue to make progress.

    And again, I think this stave-off-the-chaotic-free-for-all function could be performed at much less expense, either by peer networks that took on the remaining valuable function of publishers, or (more likely) by a radically slimmed-down publishing industry. My problem is that I don’t want to suffer though two or three more decades of nonsense while the publishing industry asymptotically approaches sanity.

    How do you distinguish between someone who knows what they’re talking about and someone who’s talking complete nonsense (or worse, actually falsifying information). Keep in mind that “learning to tune them out” isn’t always the best strategy. In this day and age, its often easier to flood a reader with misinformation if you want to keep them from making a good decision.

    You learn to recognize a few warning signs:
    – cherry-picking data
    – ignoring contradictory evidence
    – false dichotomies
    – repeating the same arguments in new venues even after they’ve been falsified
    – elisions that shift the ground of an argument

    Admittedly, it’s not easy. You have to get up to speed on the field, so that you know enough to spot these things. You can’t do that with every field, obviously–science has gotten too big. But you can look and listen and see if putative cranks in other fields are using the same flawed tactics.

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    That turning-a-supertanker analogy is apt here. Why do we have to turn the supertanker, again? Why can’t we just abandon it for the carbon-fiber racing sloops that everyone has access to now?


  11. Yes, think the same as Matt Wedel. It’s a purely social phenomenon. But we don’t have to convince everybody that is OK to use other forms of publications. No. Is enough to pinpoint those from academia, or those from the governments, who facilitate the reign of this useless industry over our lives. Then work with them for the change, or against them if they are not honest. If everything about this subject would be transparent, I guess the transition would be more rapid.


  12. I think with the advent of open-access journals like PeerJ, PLOS One, etc., you’re getting the best of both worlds: peer-reviewed science that’s free to the public. The trick will be getting everyone on this horse. I commented on my own blog that the more Big Discoveries (like Spinosaurus or Deinocheirus) end up in open access, the more mainstream and welcoming those journals will become. This is a problem of science CULTURE. We’ve gotta stop rewarding–or at least incentivizing–people for publishing in locked-down publications.

    As an aside, the comics industry is following a similar trend to the music industry: there are more webcomics out now than ever before, and many of them are high-quality. They’re paid for with advertising, donations, Kickstarters, etc. The point is comics don’t need Marvel or DC to succeed, and I think that’s great.


  13. Matt Wedel: ” It doesn’t follow that we need a publishing industry to provide them.”

    True. It might be an open question, though, whether some of those services might be better provided by — if not an industry — at least professionals specializing in some of those skills. It’s not clear to me this instant how we could take advantage of some of those professionals without a publishing industry. (It would not surprise me if there are ways, but I can’t think of them this instant.)

    “They could be provided by the community for a lot less money than we’re spending right now.”

    While some of those tasks might be done by members of the scientific community for less money, they may be other costs (especially volunteering time) that the community might not yet be willing to provide. We’ll see.

  14. Matt Wedel Says:

    Zach, that’s cool news from the world of comics. I think that it is most likely that scholarly publishing is gradually moving in the direction that comics and music have taken, where there are still big publishers (record labels in music, Marvel, DC, Image, etc. in comics), but not signing with them is not a barrier to success for authors, and (hopefully) this forces the publishers to offer more actual value added.

    Zen, both of your points are fair, although I note that we’re all volunteering a lot of our time already as editors and reviewers on behalf of the existing system; it seems likely that people would also volunteer their time for a different system, if they found it provided adequate value in return.

    It’s not clear to me this instant how we could take advantage of some of those professionals without a publishing industry.

    My problem is that the services I want are such a small part of the publishing industry, it’s like being told that I need an electric toothbrush but I can only have one if it’s permanently bolted to a locomotive. I agree that those professionals are currently embedded in the publishing industry for historical reasons, but at one point essentially all music producers were embedded in the record label system. How do we decouple the expertise we need from the rest of the juggernaut, which is not only unnecessary but harmful?

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    Zen points out:

    While some of those tasks might be done by members of the scientific community for less money, they may be other costs (especially volunteering time) that the community might not yet be willing to provide. We’ll see.

    I am optimistic that we could do this. After all, by far the most important non-author contribution — the peer-review itself –is already done by the community as an ongoing quid pro quo, with no direct cost to the author. If we can handle peer-review as a community, why not the relatively easy stuff? But I suspect it’ll turn out to be a better use of scholarly time and money to hire specialists when needed.


  16. […] 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: […]

  17. David Marjanović Says:

    By contrast, in scientific publishing, if you miss some obscure paper, you might end up naming some taxon or clade that has already been named or finding some principle that has already been discovered. True, some of this already happens due to small, in-house journals, but its far from the free-for-all that would happen if everyone were to publish independently.

    Google.

    If you want to publish a new name, type it into the top right corner of your browser window first.

    The only thing you could overlook this way is old dead-tree publications that nobody on teh whole wide intarwebz has ever cited. There are fewer and fewer of those.

    Which leads to the question, if everyone went to blogs and such, how would we determine whether the naming of a new taxon is valid or not? If anyone can just make a wordpress blog and nane every single specimen they want, what’s to stop taxonomic vandalism like Darren has discussed for herps?

    Simply amend the big-C Code to require peer review for the valid publication of a new name. Currently, as in the 19th century, peer review is not required for this – and the question of whether a self-published act of taxonomic vandalism is validly published often turns into rules-lawyering.

  18. Michael Halley Says:

    Yes it is only taxonomic vandalism when you want to steal someone else’s work. Then you accuse them of being a vandal and steal away! Wulf Schleip is a holotype example, stealing the work of Ray Hoser who properly named species decades ago!

  19. Mike Taylor Says:

    Michael, this is not the opinion of the herpetological community, which does not consider Hoser’s work nomenclaturally valid. As a non-herpetologist myself, I’m not going to venture an opinion of my own, but I don’t want to let your idiosyncratic perspective stand unchallenged on the blog that I co-run. Caveat lector.

  20. dobermunk Says:

    BIG BLACK!!!! Steve is genious.

  21. Janet Brent Says:

    Well according to Drs Shea, Cogger, Emmott, Eipper, Wilson and others it is Hoser who stands correct and whose names they use in their books. Also it’s been reported in Australia that Hoser won a big court case against Kaiser et al. just last week that found they had acted illegally, effectively shuttling their campaign against Hoser. Likewise for Dr. Dubois of the Museum Paris, it is Hoser who has the majority support of herpetologists.
    I put a link to his recent peer reviewed scientific paper and direct you to the chapter on taxonomic vandalism here
    http://www.mapress.com/bionomina/content/2015/f/b00008p053f.pdf


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: