So is there more to say? I think so. That’s why something I wrote with Laurie Goodman and David Mittleman just dropped in Genome Biology, Dragging scientific publishing into the 21st century. It’s open access, you can read it all, and I encourage you to do so. The question that framed my thought was a simple one: how can scientific publishing become more than simply a PDF delivery platform? Using the internet to deliver PDFs is like using a gasoline engine to draw a conventional carriage designed with horses in mind. And it’s feasible because scientific publishing is a profitable field dominated by a comfortable oligopoly which captures rents from the institutional structure of modern science. Remember, high impact journals are not high impact because they provide a better experience for scientists, who are the producers and consumers of the product. They’re high impact because they are high impact, and as long as they are high impact people will need to publish in them to gain scientific credibility and prestige. Many researchers would label this a vicious circle. There’s a reason that they call Science, Nature, and Cell “glamor mags.” It’s about being seen. Ultimately, a matter of fashion, not substance.
What can not continue, will not continue. There isn’t a need to talk about creative destruction today as if it’s a novel concept, we’ve seen “smartphones” swallow the functionality of whole industries (e.g., watches and cameras), and it seems inevitable that ride-sharing will radically transform the nature of the taxi industry in the United States. I hold that the dominance and profitability of scientific publishing firms today is in large part a function of norms within modern science which enable and perpetuate a coordination problem. Once the norm starts shifting, it will change very fast, because many of the people who are publishing in the glamour magazines only do so begrudgingly because they feel they have to.
So is there a future for organizations such as the Nature Publishing Group? I think there is. The key is to take more to heart the idea that scientists are their customers. I don’t think the sector will be as awash in money in the future, so it needs to be leaner and more efficient. Publishers need to really start innovating so that scientists don’t just focus on something like “impact factor,” but also questions such as “is this journal going to package and present my results in a way that communicate well with my colleagues?” In other words, one needs to focus on the substance of what scientific publishing is supposed to be about, beyond obtaining a tenure track position, the furtherance of mutual understanding! Second, the journals can also invest in sharpening their style so that they always maintain some value-add over spare operations such as preprint servers. The ecosystem of scientific communication will remain vast, but it will evolve. Scientific publishers need to reposition themselves into a smaller but more specialized niche soon, because the market is likely to shift underneath their feet before they know it.