1 May 2013

Publishing goes the way of pornography

There are ten articles on academic publishing in Nature that discuss the struggle between open- and closed-access, online journal scams, the profit model, and so on.

The struggle is important because more papers are going into more expensive journals, making it difficult for academics (let alone the public!) to find research worth reading.

Publications are important as a means of sharing research results. They are peer-reviewed to make sure that those results are interesting and clearly given. They are published in journals to make it easier for others to find them (brand name) and make them nicer to read (formatting), but the journal's most important function is coordinating the process of transforming a working paper into a peer-reviewed article.* In that process, journal editors choose which papers to send for peer review by referees and then which papers to publish as articles. Journals then have market power (a monopoly over access to THAT paper) that is sometimes abused in setting subscription prices far above costs (e.g., $35,000 per year).**

High prices make it hard to get readers, and that's a problem because most academics want their work to be read -- and cited -- by other academics.

The rise of open access journals was supposed to address that problem, by allowing authors to pay for the cost of publishing so that readers could get articles for free, but that model is getting a bad reputation due to counterfeit journals that take money to publish anything. It's also causing problems because there are more and more journals (legitimate or not) willing to publish articles. Now readers are facing the opposite problem of a few expensive journals: too many free articles in too many journals; few can track, let alone read and cite them.

Now we get to the pornography. That industry had a pay-to-enjoy (etc.) model for many years, selling magazines, DVDs, and online subscriptions for big profits, but the rise of "amateur porn" has disrupted their cash flows. Anyone with a camera can now upload photos or videos for everyone else to see. The world of porn is full of me-too "publications" of varying quality, and the world of academic publications is going that way.

What's needed is a good editing function, so that readers (of any content) can find what they want. That's not going to happen by putting all the porn on one site or all the journal articles on one site; there are too many sites and there's no way to aggregate them, except via some gogglized form of indexing that sums citations across all publications everywhere.*** Here's a great overview on the future of scholarly citation.

Here's my google profile. What's interesting is that my "top" work is my dissertation, which is not published in a journal but as a working paper.

Do I care about the format or paywall? No. I care about readers -- just like other academics. If I could include my blog and book in these counts, then I'd have a much better quantification of my impact. That's not just important for my ego -- it's the yardstick that's used to compare output of one academic to another, for grant money, promotions, etc. More important, an impact that added downloads, impressions, likes, etc. could also be used to quantify my non-academic impact, which is more important to me and of increasing importance for academics interested in communicating with the public.

These global digital metrics will replace the old system of counting references in paper-based academic journals. They will also make it easier to discuss -- and refine -- the contribution of academics to the creation, dissemination and use of knowledge in society. That will matter for deans and grantmaking organizations, but it will also matter for citizens who are interested in what academics are producing with tax dollars and access to useful ideas. This process will not be easy for either the public or academics, since "town and gown" don't usually mix, but it's necessary (due to the disruption to publishing caused by the internet) and useful (due to the need to improve the quality and application of academic thought).

Bottom Line: Academic publication, like pornography, is becoming more democratic and open. This process will be messy, but it will benefit those who use ideas and those who create good ideas.

* In "An auction market for journal articles," Jens and I suggest a way to improve matching and valuation of academic work. This idea would also work in a world with open access journals, but not (as yet) with non-academic outlets.

** I'm a fan of competition and allowing companies to make a profit, but the journal "market" is complicated by free labor from editors, reviewers and authors, subscription payment by libraries that provides free reading for university staff, and public funding for research that's then put behind a paywall.

*** Google indexing is already getting manipulated by "for profit citation spammers." Wow.

H/T to JP

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