July 02, 2015

The Web Will Either Kill Science Journals or Save Them (opinion piece)

From: Wired (June 2015)
Journals historically were owned by scientific societies. That’s how they were created 350 years ago. 
They were not made to make profits. They were made, in a way, to finance the scientific society. And it was a way to give back. Then in the digital era these scientific societies were quite fragmented, especially in the social sciences, and they didn’t have the means to go from print to the electronic era. You see that around 1995 is the moment that the proportion owned by these publishers starts to grow increasingly and a smaller portion are owned by individual publishers.
So, some of the small publishers were acquired by the big guys. Why does it matter if a few major publishers own most of the papers?
A lot of places, universities and research libraries, can no longer pay the subscription fees. They increase by a factor of 5, 10, 15 percent a year depending on the publishers. Universities are rich in some cases, less rich in others, but they have a fixed budget. The papers are given freely to these scientific journals whereas, of course, it takes money to pay researchers, to pay students, to produce the research. 
How dramatic are these increases really? 
The share of the budget for American research libraries that was going to journals increased by 400 percent in 25 years. For books, it didn’t even increase 100 percent.
That’s insane. What’s so strange to me is that this consolidation happened as everything shifted online in the ’90s, whereas most things became democratized, at least initially, by the web
Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting. What we’re seeing today is that it’s easier for me to create a new journal because I don’t have to print it. But it’s also easier for a publisher to create a new journal. And so, in the end, what prevailed is indeed the commercial publishing model and not the independent publishing model.
If you can create your own journal, or say, your own webpage, why do researchers care about being published in these major journals anyway? Why not just throw it up online? 
Historically, the journal was created to diffuse knowledge. That’s still the case today, in a way, but we don’t need journals to diffuse knowledge. We can diffuse it via our own self-archiving platforms such as arXiv. Similarly, you don’t need a journal to do a peer review. Journals are managing the peer review process, but it’s not the journals doing the peer review—it’s the researchers doing it freely.
But there’s one function of journals on which scientists are totally dependent on today, and that’s to create a hierarchy of discoveries for scientists. If you publish something in Nature—ah!—that’s seen as something very important. But if you publish something in what’s seen as a less important journal, well, then the research is going to be seen as something much less important.
As a non-scientist that seems like a nightmare. Why does it matter at all? 
What we’re dependent on collectively now is not the functional role of journals, but the symbolic role of journals. It’s a functional role, because the symbolic role is important for the hierarchy in the scientific communities, but it’s not what you would consider core. Universities are to blame in a way, because they’ve created a monster with research evaluations, where they say to their young professors, “Ah, if you don’t get published in, say, Nature, you won’t get tenure.”
Ten years down the line, a hundred years down the line, how could this system change for the better?

Some universities have started to unsubscribe from journals, but it’s not because they want to start a revolution, it’s because they don’t have money anymore. I’m quite pessimistic in many ways. I think as long as researchers evaluate discoveries based on the cover of the journal rather than the value of the content of the research then it’s going to be all in   of the big publishers.
Why haven’t any indie, alternative publishers cropped up online to fight back against these behemoths?
Of course, of course. There are many of them. I mean journals like, PLOS ONE, where our paper was published (see) is one example, which is a general journal. But there’s also PLOS Medicine, which has become one of the top medical journals. What I think needs to be done is to make researchers aware of the situation in which we collectively are. And that was the goal of the paper. 
The fact that there are these five major publishers—do you think it affects the kind of research that gets done in order to get into those journals?
No, I don’t think so. Because the publishers don’t have any control of the content. That’s the editors. So from that point of view, I would say it’s quite the status quo, not more, not less than before the digital era.
What about in different subfields? Are all fields equally affected? 
In subfields like psychology, the five publishers control 71 percent of the output, so that’s a very strong dependency. And, on the other hand, you can have fields like physics where it’s not controlled by big publishers but by scientific societies. There’s a lot of open access in physics. Most physicists the first thing they’ll do is put the paper in an archive, then after that they may submit it to a journal, but they manage to live without the vanity journals.
Do you think that there will be ever be a time when the whole system breaks down and say, you discover something, you throw it up online, and researchers work in a more collaborative way across the world?
I do hope for that, but again we need to also give credit to authors. If you switch to a totally collaborative world where you put everything online, then we need to get rid of the evaluation culture, because as long as there’s an evaluation culture no one will do that.
Of course.
That being said there are a few new journals that are trying to change that with post-publication peer-review. You may have heard of F1000. It has a journal called F1000 Research where you submit a paper and then it throws everything online. And once it’s online, it can be reviewed by researchers, but it can also be commented on by anyone.
So in that way, no one loses time, everyone can see it once it’s submitted, and there’s also a system in which, indeed, there’s an evaluation. In order to be considered as published, and thus indexed in the main database such as the Web of Science, the paper has to be approved by reviewers. If it’s not approved, it will remain there as unapproved.
Do you think that kind of open source model could work for everyone? 
I think this is a very good model, but given that it’s open, you see who reviews your paper, and as a reviewer people see who you are. Some people are not so happy with that. If there’s research done by a top researcher in my field, I might not have the guts to criticize him or her, so the general openness can be seen as something positive or something quite negative. When it’s anonymous, you can say whatever you think is important.
Right, human nature may get in the way.
From a theoretical point of view, everything is great, but when we go into the actual practice, there are a lot of little problems.

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