Friday, 25 October 2013

Academic publishing reform 3. Institutional evolutions

Institutions such as universities and funding bodies play a major role in research policy, and therefore potentially in scientific publishing. There are many things institutions could do to improve the publishing system, such as:
  • renouncing the use of impact factors and citation counts,
  • evaluating researcher's works on their merits, and not on whether or where they are published,
  • lauching and supporting innovative journals,
  • stopping paying Big Deal subscriptions to publishers, and facilitating the buying, hoarding and sharing of individual articles by researchers,
  • ordering the researchers they employ not to work as referees or editors for the worst publishers.
But institutions seldom if ever do these things, and since I want to discuss only observed behaviour, the discussion will be rather brief. Actually, institutions are sometimes more inclined to embrace pernicious innovations, such as the h-index or the publishers' Big Deals, than genuine progresses, especially when the pernicious innovations favour the bureaucracy's natural tendency to increase its own size and power.

For example, a common misconception is that large institutions are better than small ones at dealing with big publishers. Actually, given the all-or-nothing nature of the proposed Big Deals, the only available negociating tool is the threat to not subscribe at all. The smaller the institution, the more credible the threat. People who are specifically mandated to negociate with a publisher on behalf of a large institution or consortium cannot make such a threat, and must agree to the dictated price. (The publisher may pretend to demand an even more outrageous price at the beginning, and then retreat, in order to hide the fact that negotiations are meaningless.)

A common and significant way institutions try to improve the publishing system is by adopting open access policies. Clear and detailed explanations on the subject of open access to scientific publications are provided in a Unesco document. However, not all open access policies are effective. An effective policy should:
  • ask researchers to deposit their articles in an institutional repository, in order to take control back from the publishers,
  • be mandatory, and count only articles in the repository for managing careers,
  • allow for publishers' embargos, but moot them by providing a "request article" button for semi-automatically distributing embargoed articles,
  • avoid funding Gold open access publishing,
  • provide some advantages, not only obligations, to researchers. These advantages, beyond the increase in readership which automatically comes with open access, can be a facilitation of administrative formalities, by the automatic compilation of publication lists.
Such a policy was adopted by the University of Li├Ęge under Bernard Rentier.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Academic publishing reform 2. New publishing models

The organization of traditional academic journals arose at a time when their most important task was to disseminate information, and when the printed word was expensive and therefore scarce. The electronic word is no longer expensive, but readers' time still is, and there remains some justification for imposing conciseness in articles. But disseminating articles can now be done for free, and subscription-based journals now hinder the flow of information using paywalls and legal threats, rather than helping it. Not to mention the very useful information which they never disclose -- the reviewers' reports.

There are many ideas on how to improve scientific communication. Articles themselves might be replaced by wikis or something else. Keeping articles as the primary means of communication, the natural idea is to build, as Gowers puts it,
"a cross between the arXiv, a social networking site, Amazon book reviews, and Mathoverflow". However, it is difficult to start a new system from scratch.
Any new system must be able to compete with the established journals, which not only are entrenched in the minds of academics, but also hold sway over their careers. Being able to compete limits the radicality of possible innovations: the new system must be officially recognized and indexed as a journal, and must play the game of bibliometrics. Of course, it is possible to solve each problem in turn, and to start winning over academics with services such as social networking, before trying to be recognized as a journal.

So, which innovations have been or are being tested?

The simplest idea is to start a traditional journal using modern tools, thereby reducing costs to a minimum. One can use free journal-management software. One can even rely on the arXiv for hosting and distributing the articles, and do only the selecting and reviewing: this is the idea of the overlay journals.

A more ambitious proposition is to start journals with advanced features such as open peer review or a new economic model. This was done by eLife, and PeerJ. These examples show that, when given the choice, most authors will make reviewers' reports public. Moreover, PeerJ has introduced a new economic model where authors pay of the order of 100 euros for a lifetime membership -- negligible costs when compared with the thousands of euros per article of typical Gold open access publishers.

Finally, the more radical idea of allowing the public to comment on articles, instead of picking one or more reviewers, is being tested by the Selected Papers Network and Publons. For the time being, these systems are not supposed to replace journals, but they can be used to publicly discuss articles. The community would certainly benefit if email exchanges between readers and authors, as well as reviewers' reports, were thus made public.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Academic publishing reform 1. Boycott

Important reforms of academic publishing, such as achieving open access, reforming and opening peer review, and drastically reducing costs, are desirable and feasible. Such reforms will not come from traditional academic publishers, which enjoy de facto monopolies and make huge profits in the existing system.
Reforms have to come from academics and academic institutions. In a series of posts, I will review some of the actions which are being undertaken by individuals and institutions. The first post is about boycotts.

Boycotting the worst established publishers is the most straightforward way for academics to act: it directly addresses the main obstacles to reform, and it can be done by individuals. The most prominent example is the boycott of the publisher Elsevier. While this boycott is no existential threat to Elsevier, it is prominent enough to be noticeable by financial analysts.

Academics can boycott journals as authors, reviewers and editors.

Boycotting a journal as an author can be dangerous for one's career, as there are usually very few journals with a given level of prestige in a given scientific field. Moreover, authors often have coauthors, and dragging them into a boycott can be difficult, and even irresponsible when some of them are junior scientists.

Boycotting a journal as a reviewer is a priori easier, as an anonymous reviewer's work is only known to the editor, and has little or no impact on the reviewer's career. However, most reviewers consider their work as an altruistic act benefitting the community, and will not easily be conviced that working for certain journals is detrimental to the community, by perpetuating obsolete and overly expensive models of publishing. There is little a journal could do if faced with a widespread reviewers' boycott. Paying reviewers might help, but the sums would have to be small. (Assuming profits of 1000 euros per article, out of which 20% are diverted to paying reviewers, an acceptance rate of 50%, and two reviewers per article, we obtain 50 euros per reviewer.)

A journal cannot survive without good editors, and the prestige of the editors as researchers is decisive for the standing of the journal. Editors will not easily decide to resign: they have often given much effort to the journal, and want to continue the good work. Moreover, editors are typically paid. Nevertheless, it has sometimes happened that a whole editorial board resigns, in order to recreate a similar journal independently from the original publisher.

None of these three types of boycott is very widespread. This is not surprising: on the one hand, journals are established participants of the research enterprise, and academics mostly communicate with journals via other academics -- the editors. On the other hand, the publishers' mischief is not directly visible to academics, as journal subscriptions with their abusive prices are negotiated way above their heads. Journals show their nice faces to the academics, and their ugly faces to the hapless librarians. Then academics fail to understand why they should boycott, and librarians fail to understand why academics are reluctant to boycott.