The job of a newspaper columnist is to agitate and George Monbiot did exactly that last week with a furious rant in The Guardian about academic publishers. It may have been an odd choice for most of his readers but Monbiot seemed to be actually shaking with rage as he laid into the companies that gather and disseminate the academic literature, flogging them repeatedly for charging scientists to publish, for demanding that they provide peer review services for free and, damn them all, for stashing journals behind paywalls that impoverish universities and prevent the public from accessing the fruits of research that their taxes have probably funded.
Personally, I find it difficult to think straight when I’m very angry. I get too caught up in the emotion of defending my position to see clearly and I suspect Monbiot is the same. That may explain some of his wayward swipes; he declared at one point that the academic publishing racket might even be an infringement of the universal declaration of human rights. Come on, George, calm down — you know it’s a bit more complicated than that.
And where did the fury lead? Perhaps for Monbiot it is sufficient to have stirred up the issue, but that’s not enough for those of us at the sharp end — the academics and the public.
The question of action needs to be addressed because behind the incandescent invective Monbiot actually has a point and drew sympathetic support from several knowledgeable commentators, including Jon Butterworth, Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Martin Robbins. The problems are real: academic publishing is expensive for authors and readers. The scientific enterprise — and the scientific society — will work better if results are disseminated more widely, which necessitates reducing costs.
Defenders of the publishers had their work cut out in the wake of Monbiot’s article. Noah Gray made some interesting counter points from the industry perspective (he works for Nature Publishing Group), though not even he could defend charging over $30 for 24 hour access to a single article. Kent Anderson at Scholarly Kitchen tried to argue for the added value that publishers bring to the academic literature but I can’t say I found his case compelling. Part of the difficulty with economic arguments is that publishing companies are private businesses with many different products, not just journals, so it is difficult to dissect operating costs, negotiating positions and profit margins.
I don’t have the head for that kind of debate but as an active scientist I am interested in taking the matter forward. The problem of publishing is a long-standing one — Monbiot’s piece echoed arguments laid out by academic blogger Peter Coles in 2009 (though the complaints go even further back)— which means of course that it is difficult. I’m not sure I have much new to say on the subject but I was struck by how the backwash from Monbiot’s article caught on remarks made by Michael Nielsen at Imperial College this week, and I want to take the opportunity to think out loud.
Nielsen pointed out that academic publishing wasn’t perceived as much of a problem prior to about 1990. In fact, until that point it seemed a very effective way of disseminating scientific (and other) findings. But the incredible growth of the world wide web has completely changed the way we give and receive information. The primary transformation is that the web makes publishing appear so much quicker, easier and cheaper. Why therefore is scientific publishing still such an expensive business, for authors and readers alike?
For some the response to this question is that authors should take charge of the process — the do-it-yourself route. Dorothy Bishop has made some practical suggestions about self-publishing; it’s pretty easy these days to format your manuscript to look like the real thing. She and Jon Butterworth both also pointed to the arXiv database, an online pre-print repository that is popular with physicists, as a worthy model. It provides information for free (prior to peer review), establishes priority — an important concern for competitive scientists — but does not compromise the ability to publish in the peer-reviewed literature (though I have heard of some exceptions to this).
If low-cost publication and access is feasible, why is it not more popular among scientists? I was surprised to learn that arXiv is not even used by all branches of physics. In other disciplines such as my own field, the biosciences, there is no notion of an equivalent repository for research. For me part of the reason is the fear that releasing pre-prints of my work prior to publication in a ‘proper’ journal would simply give ammunition to my competitors. But high-energy physicists who use arXiv are mystified by this attitude since deposition in arXiv establishes who got there first. What are the origins of this cultural gulf and how can it be spanned?
There appears to be a clear demand for an easier publishing model (e.g. see Bjorn Brembs’ thoughtful slide-show). How else to explain the super-charged growth of PLoS One, an online open access bioscience journal that is free to readers and publishes peer-reviewed work as long as it is has been competently done — there is no threshold of interest or significance barring publication.
The growth of PLoS ONE may have been stellar but it still accounts for only tiny percentage of the total scientific output. It has changed the culture, but by how much? If cost, speed of publication and ease of access were really the primary concerns of working scientists, surely other publishers would have jumped into the market? This is happening to an extent — have a look at Nature Publishing Group’s latest title, Scientific Reports — but these new open access journals still charge a hefty fee to authors for the privilege of publication. Shouldn’t the free market be driving down costs?
The problem is that the market is not really free because the costs of publication and subscription are not the only factors in play: the key sticking point is that scientists remain in thrall to journal impact factors. Monbiot can rail against the publishers all he wants, but as long as we scientists are determined to fling ourselves repeatedly at top-tier journals — like moths to a burning lamp — we will never escape a trap that, bizarrely, is of our own devising. For who controls access to journals? Scientists. Who controls access to grants, fellowships and career progression, all of which are largely dependent on a record of publication in journals? Scientists. We know and celebrate this gate-keeping as peer review — it is a proud, though somewhat tarnished, emblem of our credibility. But are we really acting in our own best interests, both as a community and as servants of the public?
And so I turn finally to the example that Michael Nielsen mentioned in his talk, of the mathematician Timothy Gowers who, in this internet age, dared to ask on his blog “Is massively collaborative maths possible?“.
Apparently, it is.
Which of course begs the question in my borrowed title: can the scientific community work together online to improve the dissemination of its research?
We have made a few faltering steps — arXiv, PLoS ONE — but these have yet to embrace the whole scientific community. There is seepage but not yet a cultural shift, not yet sufficient resolve to break the cycle of dependency on impact factors. What will it take? A blog post certainly isn’t going to do it. I suspect we need concerted support from funders and universities, and bold leadership from a few high-profile champions — Nobel Laureates? — to take us towards a solution. It may also require the scientific blogosphere, where this issue is vigorously aired, to reach out more effectively to our disconnected colleagues.
It is easy to see difficulties — hence the durability of the problem. I thought that once I attained the rank of professor I would be free to publish where I wanted and damn the consequences. Of course that was naive; it would be unfair on junior co-workers trying to establish their own careers and would probably kill my chances of maintaining funding. Moreover, science is an international operation — the solution, when it comes, will have to be coordinated on the same scale.
However, ‘international’ is precisely the scale of the internet. The mathematicians have shown that we can use the web to amplify problem-solving intelligence. If we are too concussed by impact to do anything about our publishing woes, then we deserve every single flaw in the current model.