Michael Eisen: ‘The Past, Present and Future of Scholarly Publishing

Very important manifesto – from PLOS co-founder Prof. Michael Eisen's lecture at the California Commonwealth Club:

…Universities are, in essence, giving an incredibly valuable product – the end result of an investment of more than a hundred billion dollars of public funds every year – to publishers for free, and then they are paying them an additional ten billion dollars a year to lock these papers away where almost nobody can access them.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragically insane.

To appreciate just how bizarre this arrangement is, I like the following metaphor. Imagine you are an obstetrician setting up a new practice. Your colleagues all make their money by charging parents a fee for each baby they deliver. It’s a good living. But you have a better idea. In exchange for YOUR services you will demand that parents give every baby you deliver over to you for adoption, in return for which you agree to lease these babies back to their parents provided they pay your annual subscription fee.

Of course no sane parent would agree to these terms. But the scientific community has.

…So what would be better? The outlines of an ideal system are simple to spell out. There should be no journal hierarchy, only broad journals like PLOS ONE. When papers are submitted to these journals, they should be immediately made available for free online – clearly marked to indicate that they have not yet been reviewed, but there to be used by people in the field capable of deciding on their own if the work is sound and important.

The journal would then organize a different type of peer review, in which experts in the field were asked if the paper is technically sound – as we currently do at PLOS ONE – but also what kinds of scientists would find this paper interesting, and how important should it be to them. This assessment would then be attached to the paper – there for everyone to see and use as they saw fit, whether it be to find papers, assess the contributions of the authors, or whatever.

This simple process would capture all of the value in the current peer review system while shedding most of its flaws. It would get papers out fast to people most able to build on them, but would provide everyone else with a way to know which papers are relevant to them and a guide to their quality and import.

By replacing the current journal hierarchy with a structured classification of research areas and levels of interest, this new system would undermine the generally poisonous “winner take all” attitude associated with publication in Science, Nature and their ilk. And by devaluing assessment made at the time of publication, this new system would facilitate the development of a robust system of post publication peer review in which individuals or groups could submit their own assessments of papers at any point after they were published. Papers could be updated to respond to comments or to new information, and we would finally make the published scientific literature as dynamic as science itself. And it would all be there for anyone, anywhere to not just access, but participate in.

…If we all do this, them maybe the next time someone like Aaron Swartz comes along and tries to access every scientific paper every written, instead of finding the FBI, they’ll find a giant green button that says “Download Now”.

The lecture transcript.

 

Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral

Michael Eisen linked the captioned Guardian article by Open Access activist Dr. Mike Taylor. This is a target-rich environment for Taylor and Eisen. I highly recommend you just dive into Mike’s essay, which begins with a conversion confession:

Publishing science behind paywalls is immoral. There, I said it.

I know, I know. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I’ve done it myself. To my shame, several of my own early papers, and even a recent one, are behind paywalls. I’m not speaking as a righteous man to sinners, but as a sinner who has repented.

Having started my scientific life from rather a conventional stance, it took me a while to come around to this position. (You can watch my position evolve, if you care to, through this chronological series of blogposts: “Choosing a journal”, “Free work”, “Collateral damage”, “Private-sector”, “RCUK submission”, “Irritation”, “Versus everybody” and “Making public”.) But I’ve finally arrived. And it’s great that the UK government has arrived in the same place.

If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it. I heartily wish I’d never done it, and I won’t do it again.

But aren’t there special cases?

I really need to publish in Science/Nature/Cell for my career …

No. Michael Eisen, cofounder of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), doesn’t believe this is true and makes a strong case that we’re confusing correlation with causation. He notes that fewer than half of biology hires at Berkeley in the last decade have published in Science, Nature or Cell. Berkeley!

(…) 

But I can’t afford article processing charges (APCs) …

No. First of all, more than half of open-access journals don’t charge a fee at all. Among those that do, the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants. PeerJ, which launches this month, charges a one-off fee of $299 for a lifetime’s publications. Most fee-charging open-access journals offer waivers – for example, the no-questions-asked waiver at PLOS, where the philosophy is explicitly that no one should be prevented from publishing by lack of funds.

Tim Gowers, who is leading a boycott against the publisher Elsevier and is starting the new Forum of Mathematics journal says it “will not under any circumstances expect authors to meet APCs out of their own pockets, and I would refuse to be an editor if it did”.

(…) 

Great article, great comments, so many substantive comments that Mike followed up with this post.

Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?

Mike Taylor’s followup post, which has also attracted lots of excellent comments. Here’s a sample

As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.

Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.

So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.

A clarification

Chris wrote:

Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled ‘immoral’, as Taylor claims?

The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as ‘Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians’!)

So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am ‘labelling’ anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.

To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.

The curse of  journal prestige

And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they  negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.

As Chris wrote in his article:

In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. […] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.

The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. ‘Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in’. And 2. ‘I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well’. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say ‘We don’t care what journal your work is in’, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.

Read the whole thing and the comments, where Michael Eisen closes the circle with this:

Can somebody please call snopes.com? Everybody here is do sure that you have to have a Science, Nature or Cell paper to get a fellowship/job/tenure because “somebody told them so”. So scientific of y’all. How about somebody look at some actual data? I have. I will post more details on my blog when I get a moment, but the basic things I have found are:

1) I looked at new hires in the top 10 biology departments in the US. All had recent assistant professor hires who had not published Science, Nature or Cell papers prior to getting their jobs. A fair number of new hires published their postdoctoral work in OA journals.

2) I looked at recent awardees of several major postdoctoral fellowship programs, and again, while there were certainly many people with SNC papers, in all cases there were exceptions.

3) I looked at two prominent young investigator awards, and, surprise surprise, there were a fair number of awardees without glamour mag publications (including one whose work was published in PLoS ONE).

So let’s cut out the “somebody told me” crap. Whether people said it or not, it’s simply not true. Is there a correlation between getting jobs and fellowships and SNC publications? Yes. Of course. Because, first of all, everybody believes it’s essential and works hard to get their papers there. And the same basic criteria for cutting edge science are used by the editors of these journals as are used in hiring/fellowship decisions. So there would be a correlation even if there were no causal relationship.

Do I think it helps to have glamour mag publications if all else is equal? Yes. It probably does a little.