science politics

Thinking more generally about the “Recursive Fury” debacle, something struck me as somewhat of an eye opener: the lack of support for the authors by Frontiers and the demonstrative support by their institution, UWA (posting the retracted article). Even though this might be the first time a scholarly journal caved in to legal pressure from anti-science groups, it should perhaps come as no surprise. Ugo Bardi made a very valid point when he recently wrote:

The problem, here, is […] that we are stuck with a century old model of communication: expensive and ineffective and, worse, easily subverted by special interest groups

I disagree with his suspicion that Frontiers is a Ponzi scheme, as I quite like the federated structure of the enterprise: we are thousands of scientists and our work needs to be reviewed by thousands of scientists. Any system we might come up with for scholarly communication will, by necessity, be gigantic. But his insight quoted above really deserves special attention and ought to be a thought provoker for anybody in our business.

Any publisher always has an inherent conflict of interest: whether it is the GlamMag hyping cold fusion, stem cells or the latest flashy social psychology experiment to sell subscriptions, or a fledgling start-up that sees their venture going down a legal drain or the idealistic non-profit trying to get some more papers to hire one more developer for the next great innovation: for all of them, the financial viability of the enterprise comes before science. This conflict of interest is usually not a major issue, but does come up enough to make me worry if this is really a good idea – especially in this day and age, when digital publications cost virtually nothing.

As mentioned above, our own institutions obviously do not have this conflict of interest, on the contrary, they are the reasons for the existence of professional scientists. They can host our papers, when publishers, even the ‘good guys’ like Frontiers, cannot.

Interestingly, just a few weeks earlier, Richard Poynder, after many years of covering the open access movement, had already gotten me started thinking along those lines, noting:

I believe the movement made a mistake in allying itself with OA publishers. What it failed to appreciate is that publishers’ interests are not the same as the interests of the research community.

Another piece of evidence of these conflicts of interest is the constant struggle for the kind of licenses attached to articles by OA journals. Clearly, liberal re-use licenses are in the best interest of the one paying the bills, the tax-payer. Publishers obviously do not share these interests (neither do some authors, btw.). And so, there are constant attempts by various publishers to gain more control over our works, even if they are accessible for anyone to read.

These recent events have triggered the suspicion that maybe the entire concept of scholarly publishers is antiquated, irrespective of how open, innovative or non-profit the publisher is. In addition to the inevitable conflicts of interest, none of the publishers are seriously considering all three of our intellectual outputs: code, data and texts. They are only after our text summaries, i.e., our papers. The result being, in an age of ever sinking costs of making digital objects public, that we overpay publishers by so much, that no money is left for our institutional infrastructure serving our three output modalities. Thus, even if the conflicts of interest were not an issue, separating the fruits of our intellectual labor not only into tens of thousands of journals, but also into separate, non-interoperable silos for code, data and text makes absolutely no sense at all, given today’s technology and is outright insanity given tomorrow’s technology.

Maybe I should resign from all my volunteer positions with publishers?

Posted on  at 18:22