Why We Publish

It isn’t to obtain tenure. And it isn’t for money. Although to some, that is what publishing has become. The rationale for why we publish is (should be) to communicate results to as great an audience as possible and advance our understanding of the world around us. At Mendeley, we started to wonder how we could help communicate results and bring new models to the publication ecosystem. We think that Open Access content, where the full-text is readily accessible to all, will be the standard communication model in the future. And as such, we are rethinking how we shape our discovery algorithms.

Advancing science and research

I have a bizarre title here at Mendeley, Chief Scientist and VP of R&D. The bizarre bit, Chief Scientist, has nothing to do with my day-to-day responsibilities. It’s more to remind myself to be an advocate for the advancement of science and research. As such, I would be remiss to remain satisfied with the status quo of publishing.

As a society, we’ve gone as far as we can with the status quo standard of showing snippets to academic content, unless you can afford the access fees. Content that, in its current form of being communicated, isn’t reaching its full potential. Repeating from earlier, what is the ultimate purpose of communicating research results? To cure disease, expand our understanding of the humanities, and speed the next great discovery.

Research is a pyramid, with previous discoveries serving as the foundation for later research. Unfortunately that pyramid has been built at the same rate for more than 300 years. Acceptable forms of communicating research have not changed in that time. Increasing the rate of discovery will not happen unless we experiment with how rapidly that information is relayed. Open Access publications suggest that we can build each level of that pyramid more rapidly.

By showing more content, openly, we give researchers the tools needed to advance their research. We also enable patients and citizen scientists to have unprecedented access to take control of their diseases and interests. In turn, this will boost research output and lead to new models of communication.

What this means

I first heard about Josh Sommer in April of 2010 when he spoke at the Sage Commons Congress in San Francisco. Josh is 23 and he is the founder and Executive Director for the Chordoma Foundation. He is also a patient who suffers from a type of bone/brain tumor in his head, which has a 20-30% survival rate. To put that into perspective, you are more likely to survive an Ebola viral infection, in the jungle, without any medical intervention.

By the way, Josh is also an excellent speaker. Check him out here: Chordoma Foundation. As a warning, what he has to say can be painful to watch.

Josh started the Chordoma Foundation after he was diagnosed and started to learn about his disease. He was disheartened that he was unable to get a hold of the research needed to make his and the lives of foundation members better. Josh was a patient trying to become a citizen scientist, but was unable to do so, because even the hospital he was diagnosed at didn’t have proper access to the literature.

Discoveries have remained largely trapped and inaccessible to almost all but a select few who are able to afford the growing costs to that content. This isn’t a good thing. The impact of this trend can be summarized with this analogy of what it would be like to run Github like a science paywall journal. Github, if you don’t know, is an open repository for software code that anyone can contribute to or borrow from. Now imagine what a “Github for science” with open content could do for entities such as the Chordoma Foundation. We see Open Access as an intermediary step to that vision, and the data show it’s a win-win for both researchers and publishers.

We’re innovators for advancing research and collaboration and the new business models that come with it. Some publishers understand communication should change, and we applaud them for making the transition from paywall to Open Access. Most notably, Springer has begun experimenting with its purchase of BioMed Central. It’s disappointing that some still do not get it. Moreover, it’s gravely concerning. Users of our search and recommendation engines are mostly looking for full-text content. If we continue ranking content for which we have just metadata higher than rich content, then we are neither helping users, nor the content producers. As such, we may have to adjust our algorithms to rank richer content higher, so that it is discovered and ultimately, that will benefit research.

We publish, so that we can improve the world around us; and communicating to a wide an audience as possible is the most logical method to accomplish that objective. We recognize that, at times, publishing openly is not always possible. If you can’t publish in Open Access, then cite it. OK, I know, I know; even when citing literature there are unspoken rules and, let’s face it, political reasons many will choose to cite specific sources. And it is understandable that in the real-world, despite past pleadings to do otherwise, many young researchers need to go for that high-impact publication, which usually means behind a pay wall brand name journal. The next best alternative then is to at least start citing OA content. Doing this will not only increase exposure, but eventually it will surface in impact reports as OA journals get cited more often. No more needs to be said, put simply, cite Open Access content.

Lastly, take a moment to join one of the Open Access groups on Mendeley. There is My Open Archive and the Open Access Week group.

Jason Hoyt is Chief Scientist & VP of R&D at Mendeley. Where, among other projects, he oversees the indexing of content and the search/recommendation engines. Some opinions may be personal and not necessarily those of Mendeley. Follow him on twitter @jasonHoyt

2 thoughts on “Why We Publish

  1. I opine like Marc de Mey: “Scientific publication thus function primarily as cadastral registrations for intellectual property, not as genuine communications”

  2. Thanks Jason for a great post.

    After finishing my PhD last year, I felt that the most helpful way to contribute to science was to promote the movement to rethink scientific publishing. I wrote about a “GitHub of Science” (marciovm.com/i-want-a-github-of-science) and the response was fantastic. That single post probably reached 1,000 times more people than my scientific publications have. It will be great when that counts for something in terms of getting grants :-).

    I feel that we are approaching a tipping point in this movement, and part of the credit surely goes to publishers like PLoS, nonprofits like Sage Bionetworks, and amazing companies like Mendeley. Thanks for all that you do!

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