A few weeks ago I attended a panel session at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco called, “Making the Web work for science.” (Video wrap-up here) Really, the focus was on how to get scientists to put their data up on the Web. Later that evening, I attended a post-reception gathering and briefly spoke with (name shall remain anonymous), the founder of a very popular social news media site; sites like Mixx, Digg, Reddit, Slashdot, Del.ic.ious, Stumbleupon, etc. I told him what I do and his enthusiastic response was, “Fuck the academic publishing industry!”
Now, perhaps his bold statement was due, in part, to the flow of alcoholic beverages at the event. There is more to it than that, however. He is not a trained scientist, but as the founder of a popular social news site, is very well aware of the state of science on the Interwebs. Like many people (notice the avoidance of the worn phrase ‘members of the public’ as if they are unable to contribute to science), he has a personal interest in the domain, and is trying to figure out how his business can enable scientists.
We have to wonder though, why are things so bad with science on the Web, that even an Internet entrepreneur recognizes the problem? And who or what is responsible for this mess?
Two groups are responsible: Scientists and, as you can tell, Publishers. Let’s start with the bad guys first, and then talk about the even more guilty party of bad guys.
First, personally knowing several individuals on the inside of the publishing industry, they are decent people. My guess is the same could be said of most in their line of work. Yet, as Friedrich Nietzsche roughly stated, “Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.”
Whether it be intentional, or just the nature of having to answer to shareholders, the academic publishing industry has very little incentive to get scientists to really utilize the Web/Internet the way it should be used. And this is hindering the advancement of science.
You think you control science? You think the NIH, Congress, or your respective governments do? Sorry, but it is the publishing industry that is in control.
They decide what is and isn’t fit for publishing. They decide when and where you can self-archive manuscripts and supplementary data. They mesmerize and trap us with the lure of journal impact factors like a baby unable to wean itself. Whether we are conscious of it or not, much of the direction taken in labs isn’t based on pure science, but based on what the editors of a high impact journal will publish.
There is no motive to change up their business model and encourage the open sharing of data on the Web. It took a 2007 law passed by the U.S. Congress to ensure that studies paid for by NIH funds (via US tax dollars) were made publicly accessible 12 months after publication.
The U.S. Congress is being lobbied by publishers to block similar proposals being extended to other research branches, such as NSF. Allan Adler, Vice President of the Association of American Publishers, has stated their reasons “It undermines [the] publishers’ ability to exercise their copyrights in the published articles, which is the means by which they support their investments.” He goes on, “The NIH policy also threatens the intellectual freedom of authors, including their choice to seek publication in journals that may refuse to accept proposed articles that would be subject to the new mandate.”
That last bit is a sprinkling of spin with a dash of scare tactics. And what exactly should we be protecting? An antiquated business model, which hinders the advancement of science?
This past February, I was on a panel discussion at the annual NFAIS conference, a popular forum for academic publishers. The conference theme was on digital natives in science. At one point I was asked (rather rudely) by a rep from a major publisher what exactly the new business model should look like for publishers in an Open Access world. My first thought was, “I don’t care if you find one or not. I’m here to advance science, not your bottom line.”
I was lucky to have escaped that conference with my head still intact. And they should go ask the editors of PLoS for an answer, they’ve certainly seemed to have found a successful OA business model.
There was an excellent article in Times Higher Education written by Zoë Corbyn just last week that dives even deeper into the publisher problem. Funny enough, I had started this article last week as well, which goes to show that this problem is beginning to be on the top of everyone’s minds. It isn’t just the publishers who are to blame though, it is the scientists as well.
There seems to be a bit of a grassroots movement amongst younger scientists to move to an Open Access model and to start putting up more data on the Web. This is great! But it isn’t good enough.
Where is the leadership here? Why isn’t the American Academy of Sciences striving for obvious change? Are they just protecting their own lofty positions rather than science? Where are the de facto science celebrities who should be speaking out? Where are the university administrators enacting new hiring policies based not on which journal you publish in, but the science behind the work? Open data on the Web should be encouraged and incentivized by hiring committees rather than discouraged.
Until opinion leaders in the scientific community come out and acknowledge that the way forward is through Open Data and Open Publishing on the Web, there will be little change.
The old standby of “this is how it’s always been done” or “the system is not the best, but it works” is no longer acceptable. The most important facet of science, the scientific method, isn’t being applied to how science gets communicated. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
For more on how the Web will advance science, John Wilbanks, VP of Science at Creative Commons, has some good thoughts on Integrate. Annotate. Federate.
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