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Founder of the Royal Society

Founder of the Royal Society

A few years ago Joe Pickrell wrote a very influential post, The first steps towards a modern system of scientific publication. Influential because it seems have to been a reason for the development of SciReader.The developers behind PubChase also took some lessons from it. Of course we know the role that “open access” and PLOS have played in shifting the ecosystem of the consumption and production of scientific knowledge (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, an Eisen will enlighten). And Haldane’s Sieve has been instrumental in bringing preprints to biology (in particular, evolutionary biology and genomics). Finally, events like the Bay Area Population Genomics meetings fill the gap between inter-personal relationships which are critical to scientific production, and massive conferences which have an enormous overhead in implementation for the organizers and non-trivial cost of attendance for the conference-goers.

a190So 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.

• Category: Science • Tags: Publishing 
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Some strategies (H/T Michelle). Unfortunately the efficacy of many of these tactics varies by discipline, and it is often really hard to get a hold of something without academic access when it comes to the biological sciences. There’s arXiv and SSRN for physical and social scientists, but in the biosciences you have clusters of journals such as at PLoS and BioMed which are relatively exceptional archipelagos of easy access. If you follow one of the Eisen brothers you’ll also be made very conscious of the unfortunate fact that many a time papers which are supposed to be open access at mainstream publishing houses such as Nature are mistakenly gated because of the content management’s default settings. This technical sloppiness is rather galling because these publishing houses are often very vigilant about scanning the web (I assume via crawlers) looking for people who have put up “their”* content for free (yes, I know this from personal experience).

I have many smart and motivated readers who happen not to have academic access. It’s definitely a consideration when I want to blog a paper whether it is open or gated. Obviously I blog gated papers, but it does change the nature of the task when many of your readers aren’t going to be able to see the primary source themselves.

* I hope I’m not getting anyone in trouble when I pass on the reality that many of the original content producers often are excited when they see unauthorized distribution, because they’re thrilled that people care enough about their research to do this.

• Category: Science • Tags: Open Access, Publishing 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"