science politics

There are regular discussions among academics as to who should be the prime mover in infrastructure reform. Some point to the publishers to finally change their business model. Others claim that researchers need to vote with their feet and change how they publish. Again others find that libraries should just stop subscribing to journals and use the saved money for a modern publishing system. Finally and most recently, people have been urging funding agencies to use their power to attach strings to their grant funds and force change where none has occurred.

I was recently interviewed by the Wissenschaftsrat, a government-appointed science policy forum, and one of their questions was also:

How can the lock-in-effect of prestigious titles be avoided or mitigated and who do you see as responsible for initiating such changes?

I replied:

We, the scientific community and all institutions supporting them, are all responsible for change.

The more relevant question is: who is in the strategically best position to break the lock-in-effect and initiate change?

  • Researchers decide if they evaluate colleagues on glamour proxies that deteriorate the reliability of science by valuing “novelty” above all else, or if they stand up and demand an infrastructure from their institutions that supports reliability, saves time and provides for an optimized workflow in which they can focus on science again, instead of being constantly side-tracked by the technical minutiae of reviews, meetings, submissions, etc.
  • Libraries decide how to spend their ~10b€ annually: on subscriptions/APCs in opaque and unaccountable negotiations, exempt from spending rules or on a modern infrastructure without antiquated journals and with a thriving, innovative market that allows them to choose among the lowest responsible bidders?
  • Funders decide whether to support scientists at institutions that fund monopolists and reward unreliable science, or those that work at institutions which spend their infrastructure and research funds in a fiscally responsible way to provide an infrastructure that preserves not only text, but data and code as well, ensuring the reliability and veracity of the results.

Right now, it seems only few realize their responsibility and even fewer are even considering their strategic position for change. Until now, many seem to think researchers need to change, but they can reasonably claim that they cannot risk their or their co-workers careers. For many years, some of us have tried to convince libraries to spend their funds more responsibly, but they can reasonably claim that neither can any library make such a change alone, nor can they divert their funds without faculty support. I have yet to hear a similarly convincing argument why funders need to coerce individual researchers rather than their institutions, but I am sure they as well will soon have an analogously reasonable claim as to why they also need to make things worse while intending to make things better.

The remark to funders, of course refers to current initiatives (such as PlanS and others) to force researchers to publish only in certain, compliant venues. This is, rather obviously, a suboptimal approach.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and all players here are demonstrably well-intended. There is only one group of participants which are not well-intended and they don’t need to be: academic publishers.

Publishers, have absolutely no obligation or responsibility for change: their sole purpose, their fiduciary duty, even, in cases where the publishers are publicly traded, is to maximize profits in any legal way they see fit. Following market rules and capitalist logic, publishers today excel at avoiding competition, reducing their costs and increasing their revenue, year in year out, whether there is a global financial crisis or not. Paragons of capitalist work-ethics, the most profitable of them sport margins between 35-40% for at least the last decade or two. It is clearly not their fault if we academics create a perfect scenario for capitalist success at the expense of the public. Publishers only milk the academic cash-cow for all it is worth and we have proven to be such sheepish hosts, that the parasites do not even have to hide their disdain for us suckers any more.

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Posted on  at 15:27