On Science Preprints: academic publishing takes a quantum leap into the present

Academic journals are becoming the vacuum tubes of the Academy 2.0 enterprise

A beginning thought: Preprint services are more like libraries than journals. More interested in serving diverse stakeholders than in gate-keeping or ersatz-excellence. Happy to include work from grad students and emeriti, and from scientists anywhere on the planet. They are heralds of what needs to emerge in the aftertimes.

Academic journals are becoming the vacuum tubes of the Academy 2.0 enterprise; they are already described and defined more by their limitations than by their advantages. In their early decades, they served us well, until they didn’t. After the transition to an academy-internal publication economy, powered by ePrint services hosted across the planet, journals will not be missed. That individual academic libraries should need to continue to pony up for thousands of journal subscriptions for decades to come is now an idea only in the Xeroxed business models of for-profit publishers. Everyone else is looking for a way out; and the internet awaits.

Preprint services are a transitional step for open science. What we now call preprint services will soon evolve into ePrint services hosted by libraries and other long-term academy organizations, probably in consortia. These will connect to author-side writing and editing tool platforms, and to data and software repositories. In the approaching aftertimes, online ePrint services will become the primary destination for academy writing.

In the approaching aftertimes, online ePrint services will become the primary destination for academy writing.

The near-future, post-subscription academic information economy will optimize quality recognition and regulation through crowd-sourced, post-ePrint peer reviews. Thousands of learned societies and universities, and their millions of members and faculties, can pivot from the current, massive, corvée-labor scheme of unpaid and uncredited, pre-publication editing and reviews, to an academy-internal system of online review sites where each post-ePrint review is also a mini-publication, open to search and comment, and citation. Today, “overlay journals” call out important content on preprint servers without the need to re-publish this. Tomorrow, there will be many more opportunities to add value to preprint content.

Academy goods are anti-rivalrous public goods. They are expensive to create, they take intellect, skill, time and teamwork to achieve. But they are also enormously cheap to share across the internet, and they gain in value the more they are shared. Library subscription budgets can be redirected into training and support for eScholarship/ePrint platforms and an emergent range of open publication opportunities: a quantum leap into the present.

The current finite games of publication prestige theatre — rejection rates and impact factors, for example — damage the ability of the academy to claim truthfulness in its mission and its findings. Scientific truthfulness — the sincere intention of serving the truth in communication — gets eroded whenever the opportunities for publication require serving the marketplace’s requirements for breakthrough results and the artificial scarcity of available content. Just a quick reminder here…. we have a reproducibility problem that current academic journals will not help resolve. Also remember, Retraction Watch has now listed more than 25,000 peer-reviewed articles published in established journals that were later retracted.

Meanwhile, preprint servers are already hosting more than a thousand new submissions every day.

Meanwhile, preprint servers are already hosting more than a thousand new submissions every day. These articles are made available to readers across the planet in days or hours. A great number of these articles will not later find the luck needed to attract the generous attention of an editor, and the precise fit for a specific journal, and the good graces of anonymous reviewers. But these articles are bursting with scientific findings gleaned from an uncooperative universe through years of work. They deserve to be found and read today. To be critiqued and improved tomorrow.

Preprint services are new and nimble and ready to experiment and iterate to better serve the academy. For example, preprint services can host findings with null results, software articles, experiments that simply confirm or challenge other studies, and even idea gardens: great research idea “preposals” that are banked with a date stamp. Some preprints services host academic posters too. And all can pivot to new forms of scholarly content as these emerge: live code notebooks, nano-articles, videos — wherever science goes, and now it can arrive unhitched from a Nineteenth-Century publication model.

The free and open availability for new research results will accelerate the pace of scientific work, promote real-time collaborations on new studies, and generate a freely mineable corpus for meta-studies and machine-intelligent critical content review. Open APIs on preprint platforms are another weapon against sloppy science. If you’ve plagiarized someone’s public work, you better not put this up on a preprint server. If you’re relabeling existing work to pad your publications, you will get discovered. Preprint content is visibly self-tagged and flagged as “not-reviewed.” The willful misuse by others of information already tagged as not-reviewed is an edge case that is beyond simple remedy.

Dear reader: you have been warned and informed. Act accordingly.

Should preprint services be made aware when a content item in their library is reviewed as bad science, or whatever? Yes, indeed. I personally answer the admin email for the EarthArXiv preprint service. Did you find content on EarthArXiv that is scientifically problematic? Does the article’s conclusion reveal that Earth is, indeed, flat? Then email EarthArXiv. We can and will respond to content issues.

Again, remember that a preprint service is more like a library than a journal. Nobody is asking you to subscribe. And article submission is free. Each article has a corresponding author. If you have a suggestion or a gripe about their method or algorithm, drop them an email. Tell them what you think.

Every village and town’s public library has books that describe how to perform activities that are potentially harmful. Have you seen the Boy Scout Handbook? This has practical information that could be used for torture and murder; I mean, beyond the usual scout troop mayhem (I’m speaking here as an Eagle scout). The misuse of information in the name of science is a larger societal problem and a challenge to the academy to reestablish its own claim for truthfulness. The recent need to tell children not to eat laundry detergent pods reflects a larger societal problem, not a cuisine issue.

Can preprint services use labels or badges so that readers can be informed of issues with its content? Certainly. And the quicker the better. And preprint servers can also coordinate to standardize these labels. Soon, I would venture, there will be badges, or something like badges, that learned societies and other academic organizations can use to highlight significant work and to marginalize substandard work directly on ePrint platforms.

Preprint service providers look to improve the value of their collections for public use. But as librarians, it is not their job to perform a gatekeeping role. Post-publication review is a community responsibility. The transition from today’s vestigial academic publication mode to the aftertimes ePrint solution will not be instant nor without pain for shareholders and academic press workers. But this transition still needs to move ahead as rapidly as possible.

Platforms for post-publication peer-review are now emerging

The California Digital Library and the University of California library system are pioneers in this effort. Their eScholarship platforms are open access and available for use anywhere in the world. EarthArXiv is fortunate to be in this partnership. The new Janeway platform will gain in features and an ability to link out through CrossRef to a range of networked content.

Personally, I am looking forward to the time when EarthArXiv gets folded into some omnibus Earth science ePrint service capable of replacing hundreds of Earth science journals. This will save libraries around the planet tens of millions of dollars in subscriptions and article processing charges. Plenty of happy trees left in the forest as well.

Academic Publishers, Marketing Myopia, and the Next Phase of Scientific Publication

Several years ago at a DLESE (an NSF-sponsored earth science digital library organization) meeting at Cornell University, a breakout meeting was held on the topic of “relations with academic publishers” (or something similar). The organizer, from a major university press, asked the assembled group of academic participants, “What was your best experience with an academic publisher?” The idea was to reveal best-practices that would inform how the digital library could work in concert with publishers.

What happened next was instructive. The first respondent noted that he could recall no “best experience,” and then told a story of editorial neglect bordering on malfeasance by a noted journal (which will not be herein mentioned). The second respondent, perhaps primed by this story, also confessed that her research had been poorly served by the reviewers and the editors of more than one academic journal. The next five respondents listed still more occasions where their work, or that of their students, had been mishandled, delayed, derailed, and purloined during publication. The organizer struggled to redirect the conversation, but by the end of the hour virtually every person in the room had confessed their frustration, their anger (tinged with rage at moments), and their doubts about the entire enterprise of academic publication.

Publishers might respond that academics always feel that their work is under-valued and resent the changes reviewers suggest and editors demand. This response, while accurate, avoids the larger issues now at play in the “ecology” of academic publication. Publishers might want to frame the problem as simply one of the difficulty of vetting and polishing high-quality work. However, for the people (the content providers) in the breakout meeting the problem was that the process of academic publication is failing to support the goals of science in general, and the needs of their research (and the process for their careers) specifically. At the end of the break-out meeting, the mood of the room was something like a kinship of people who had been taken hostage by a dysfunctional service they could neither influence nor avoid.

With new opportunities currently unfolding for rapid digital dissemination of academic content, the tensions between academic publishers and the people who are, simultaneously, their content providers and main customers may find resolution in a combination of technology and culture. Academics are positioned to move ahead into emerging digital distribution channels. Commercial and non-profit publishers that cling to the logic of their historic, paper distribution channels (the constraint of a scarcity of space in the printed form, peer-review by a few anonymous individuals, access by subscription, research libraries have deep-pockets), will fall into the trap of marketing myopia (Theodore Levitt’s term [Harvard Business Review 1960]). Levitt asked the question, “What business are you in?” Each university press, academic organization press, and for-profit publisher needs to find a new answer to this question.

This new answer will need to embrace some new/old ideas about how the academy works in the digital era, and where value-added services might support a new business model. Clearly, the current model has aged beyond a simple death, and into some zombie state. Curiously, the original (350 year-old) model for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society may closely resemble what the next phase of academic publishing will look like. Henry Oldenburg, the first Secretary of the Royal Society, took on the task of gathering and publishing all of the letters sent to the Society. Publication was designed to be as rapid as possible and the value of each letter was to be determined by the readers.

The living-dead publisher perspective (propelled by marketing myopia) is evident in the response that various publishers’ associations made to a study sponsored by JISC on the economics of various alternative forms of scientific publication. One of these forms, as modeled on the ArXiv project (http://arxiv.org/) would reduce overall cost of publication by about eighty percent (including peer review and copy-editing), while making new findings available almost immediately. Here is a link to the report, the publisher’s response, and JISC’s response to the response (pdf): http://bit.ly/fGJQI0 .

Conversations are occurring at government agencies that want to increase the impacts of the research they fund, at universities that want to extend access to the knowledge they produce, and at conclaves where the digital future of academic publishing is being informed by Web 2.0 capabilities and a host of supporting technologies. These conversations will lead to new directions in federal and foundation funding, new digital objects that link science back to its data, new, community-based standards for sharing data and research, and new academic communities (virtual organizations) where socially networked colleagues will not simply review research archives (and data), but also add value to these objects, build their reputations, support academic career paths, encourage innovation, and attract new students into the academy.

To avoid becoming the “buggy-whip manufacturers” of the 21st Century, academic publishers need to be a part of these conversations; and not simply to defend their zombie business models. Cost savings are opportunities for profit growth. But the future will no longer be hostage to the print model, and the bargain between the academy and publishers will no longer capture research behind subscription pay walls.

Photo Credit: Stathis Stavrianos on Flickr (cc licensed) http://www.flickr.com/photos/stathis1980/4133296950/

Post Publication Peer Review: It’s in your future

I recently attended the PLoS Forum in San Francisco. For a couple years, I’ve been encouraging PLoS to find a way to experiment with post-publication peer review. However, the pathway from the current academic peer review system to something potentially better (faster, fairer, more precise) must first overcome the enormous weight of influence that the current publication system holds for academic careers. I was encouraged that half of the day was spent trying to figure out how to move ahead with post-publication peer review.

Here is an excerpt from a Knol I wrote about scaffolding a new system based upon the reputation system of the old system:

“The real sticking points preventing scientific communication from taking full advantage of digital distribution are the following: 1) top ranked journals have cornered the reputation economy in terms of impact on tenure (they are a virtual whuffieopoly:  for the term “whuffie” see Hunt and Doctorow). 2) the very same journals remain locked into the 20th century (with resemblances to prior centuries) print-based publishing model, built on blind peer review and informed by the scarcity of space available in any printed journal. The task then, is to release them from their print-based constraints, while rewarding and supporting them to continue to be a high-end filter for quality science; and then transitioning their whuffie-abilities to a form more suited to the rapid digital dissemination of scientific outcomes. The academy needs great filters to help guide readers to the best science among hundreds of thousands of new papers every year. Universities need fair and broad feedback from the academic community to decide which faculty deserve promotion. The research community needs to accelerate publication speed and minimize editorial overhead. And the public needs markers that help them determine good science from the rest. Open-access content is the first step. The next step might need some badges.”

You can read the whole piece at Post-Publication Peer Review in the Digital Age