Some Thoughts on Beyond the Paper

Today the journal Nature has released a special on the Future of Publishing. It includes a lot of interesting reading, but I want to focus on the comment Beyond the Paper by Jason Priem. In the comment Jason describes his vision of the future of scholarly communication, a future where many of today’s roles for articles and journals will be replaced by the decoupled journal and online tools taking the lead in dissemination and filtering of scholarly content.

Jason makes a strong case for this vision, and takes his time to also discuss the concerns and challenges. He doesn’t have the space to discuss in more detail how we get to that future, and in particular what the role of researchers, publishers, libraries and funders be in that transition.

Jason’s vision will probably be overwhelming for many researchers, and might not directly address what is probably the biggest issue for most researchers: funding for grants and jobs is limited, and the processes we use to select for good science and good scientists are inefficient and often arbitrary. Most students entering graduate school will not be able to have a career in academia, and most academics will say that they spend far too much time with evaluations – of their own work and the work of others. It is unclear to me how we can get from the current system – where one misstep such as denied grant or submission to the wrong journal can mean the end of a career – to the system that Jason envisions. The current climate doesn’t really foster experimentation by researchers and I am interested to understand how researchers can take part in this process of change.

The vision of the decoupled journal is very threatening for some of the stakeholders of the current scholarly communication ecosystem, in particular publishers and libraries. Every journal publisher and library knows that it has to reinvent itself to survive the digital transformation, but a vision that is build around a new ecosystem of service providers needs to be clear how publishers and libraries can be part of the transformation process.

Lastly, I disagree with the notion that today’s publication silos will be replaced by a set of decentralized, interoperable services that are built on a core infrastructure of open data and evolving standards — like the Web itself. I would argue that both scholarly communication and the web in general have a tendency for centralization, and that scientific infrastructure needs to be interoperable first and decentralized second. Without a focus on interoperability the future of scholarly communication will not be open and in the hands of many, but will be a race to become one of the dominant players in this new ecosystem, and we might end up with not 1000s of libraries and publishers but just a handful of technology companies holding the keys to our scientific infrastructure.

Priem, J. (2013). Scholarship: Beyond the paper Nature, 495 (7442), 437-440 DOI: 10.1038/495437a

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9 Responses to Some Thoughts on Beyond the Paper

  1. Bob says:

    When you get down to it research in many areas is very much about who has the funding and the borrowed authority that it brings and not very much about the actual findings. Sad but true.

    ‘Scientific infrastructure’ is a particularly vacuous construction because ‘scientific infrastructure’ has been happening for many years already thank you very much, but nobody has particularly cared to notice because it didn’t suit them to do so. Now it suits Nature’s purpose to do so: they have figured out how they intend to embed themselves into it, and therefore they’re ready to call it a trend. Which makes sense – it’s just canny marketing. At the same time, many of the older bits of ‘scientific infrastructure’ have been starved of funding, maintenance and support, especially in the UK where the current trend is towards one-size-fits-all institution-wide IT departments whose reaction to non-standard infrastructure is ‘if it isn’t part of the Fedora standard install, we don’t support it, and since you can’t have departmental technical staff, you can’t support it either.’ Quo bono?

    What particularly bothers me about this stuff is that ‘we scientists’ are apparently addicted to the limelight. There are many people in this scholarly communication zone who are well-known, not because their work is good but because of their dissemination strategy (‘ooh, invite Bob, he does open-book science you know’). Great tactic for the first ten or twenty people but when everybody’s doing it it stops being a sales tactic and becomes just another bunch of obligatory blogs written by very bright people who mostly aren’t natural communicators. Hooray. Apply a little game theory to it and one starts to see where this is actually going.

    “exchanging arbitrary, biased, personal opinions for meaningful distillations of entire communities’ assessments”
    This line is extremely funny. The Nature comment overuses the term ‘community’ to a worrying extent. To quote a great philosopher, ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means’.

    “an article might receive a ‘B+ overall significance’ badge from Nature”
    Yeah, because gameification improves *everything*, amirite?

    “Welcome to the next era of scholarly communication.”
    In the last 350 years the peer-reviewed journal has survived the arrival of cheap printing and copying, the mass media, radio, television, realtime worldwide communication, videoconferencing, BBS and internet. And suddenly we are to believe that this, today, is the day the music died, that forums permitting publication of reflective, focused investigations in writing spanning greater than a dozen pages just ain’t really a thing any more.

    “We can start to imagine the academic department as a sports team, full of complementary positions (theorists, methodologists, educators, public communicators, grant writers and so on). ”
    On the other hand, this bit is right on the money. Of course it was insisting on the cruddy individual metrics that knocked out all the specialists in the first place…

  2. Euan says:

    > In the last 350 years the peer-reviewed journal has survived

    I’m not sure that’s true.

    Widespread peer review is comparatively recent development – more like sixty years.

    Nobody has started a paper only journal for the past ten. Extensive supplemental information is commonplace now in life science journals, not so much twenty years ago.

    And that’s all before you get to the changes in indexing and discovery services.

    Even the very concept of what a journal should be has changed. Now they’re primarily viewed as curators, not just a convenient means of distribution.

  3. Great piece Martin, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head — We won’t transition to new technologies just because they are available, but because we have incentives to do so (economics drives technological change). But I would suspect Jason would argue that the economics are shifting as well. Despite large profit margins, all major publishers have recognized (a) the highly economically viable emerging models like PLoS (b) the need to shift from publisher to platform to stay relevant. Nature isn’t supporting Digital Science projects out of some altruistic impulse. Publishers and funders are already doing their part to bring about these changes, even as they might want to resist them.

    You ask how researchers can take part, and that’s a good question. Ironically we are not in control of our own incentive structure, since the game-theoretic optimum of the individual is to optimize their performance in the metrics everyone else already uses. With erratic exceptions, I suspect most incentive changes will mostly have to come from the top down (funders and publishers).

    Can you clarify your concerns about interoperability? I don’t see how interoperability is a problem in the decentralized, open web (though more of a problem where centralization creates walled gardens…)

  4. Martin Fenner says:

    Carl, you are right that centralization can create walled gardens. But decentralization can create silos. Interoperability usually requires at least some central infrastructure.

  5. Bob says:

    @Carl Boettinger
    ” the game-theoretic optimum of the individual is to optimize their performance in the metrics everyone else already uses”
    Naw. The game-theoretic optimum of the individual is to optimize their performance overall, metrics being one variable. If they can do that by being first to the new metrics, they will. Of course this won’t work for subsequent generations of people who will unaccountably fail to meet with the same success once that ‘look at me I’m first in the new world!’ space is saturated. That’s why you get a few early adopters and the crowd never really comes along for the ride; once the early-adopter space is full, there is no longer much point to joining in – lots to lose and nothing to gain – so everybody else goes back to the old stuff, as tenure committee have been doing this for a LONG time and do not need to bring fads into their thinking. This leaves the early adopters to get a job with the word ‘advocacy’ in the title. Algorithms schmalgorithms, this is all about pan narrans and its love for novelty. Thinking about it, info science trends operate rather like a pyramid scheme.

    Regarding incentive changes: publishers want your money, government money and dominance in the market. Governments want to outsource to publishers because outsourcing is held to be preferable over having academics or universities run services. Universities don’t like IT departments and want to minimise their exposure to them. And academics, well, it would be nice if they thought they got something out of all this too, bless ’em.

  6. Jason Priem says:

    Martin, I think the balance between centralization and decentralization we want for science is exactly the same as we’ve got for the web. As you say, we’ve got to have some central infrastructure, like the web. An example of this in science is ORCID and CrossRef, which will increasingly play a role rather like ICANN. I’m not suggesting we do away with infrastructure…quite the opposite, in facts. Widely available storage and dissemination infrastructure, made interoperable by open standards, will cut out a lot of middlemen; information consumers don’t need as much help to connect.

    As you noticed, I didn’t have a lot of space (although I talked ’em up from 250wds :) so focused on the provocative bits of “what this looks like” rather than “how we get there.” The latter question deserves much more time and space than a blog comment. But for now:

    I agree with Carl: the pressure will come from outside, from funders and administrators. These are the people I keep getting requests about altmetrics from. “Can you use this to measure the social impact of what we fund? Can you give us more up-to-date metrics? Can we understand impact more broadly?” A lot of scientists aren’t going to like it. A lot of scientists don’t like citation metrics; heck, left to themselves, a lot of scientists wouldn’t even want to publish their work at all–at least not for a few decades until they’ve figure out All The Things (Michael Neilsen uses the example of Galileo, who published his discovery of the Jovian moons in cypher, so his competitors couldn’t get the jump on him). The funders want to get their money’s worth, and I think they’re going to insist on (1) OA, which we’re already seeing, (2) web-native products like code and datasets, which we’re beginning to see, and (3) broader, web-native metrics of impact, which we’ll see in the next few years.

    One other thought: in a world where the competition is increasingly tight, you’ve actually got two options. One, Martin and Carl note: get more conservative; mind the rules to the letter and don’t take chances, because even one little slipup and you’re through. But as the competition gets tighter and the decisions at the top of the range get more and more arbitrary, another strategy starts to look better and better: throw out the rules. Do something incredibly risky, because if you succeed you’re in, and if you fail…well, you were probably going to fail anyway.

    I’m not sure that we’re in that place yet. But I think we may well be on the way there. One of scholarly communication’s greatest resources may be the growing desperation of a generation of PhD students and postdocs :).

  7. Martin Fenner says:

    Jason, thanks for the comment. Your comment is wonderful in showing us how the future could look like, and without that vision we can’t even start to talk about how the next steps to do now.

    Geoff Bilder convinced me in the interview he gave me in 2009 that some centralized infrastructure is important and his arguments still hold true.

    I totally agree on your last point. Scientific discovery is all about taking risks, and I heard a number of presentations about big discoveries that started by saying “when my post-doc started this project I told him this is a crazy idea and he shouldn’t do this”. What is important in our context is that throwing out the rules and trying something new should give you – as Bob said – an early-adopter advantage. When something doesn’t work until everyone is doing it, it is much harder to get there.

  8. Jason:

    Great points. I’m particularly glad you bring up the risk-taking option. Of course I have my own stake in that option in my open lab notebook, though I try to hedge it with a traditional publication strategy. I wonder (a) if risk-taking is indeed a potential path to success (what are the best success stories?) and (b) do the success stories make the path easier (proof of principle) or harder (because it is no longer so novel)?

    No doubt the truth is more subtle than either option. The graveyards of innovation are full of risky and brilliant ideas launched before their time, which would only later become successful. On the other hand, I feel a lot of academic advice is risk adverse “try to do it the way everyone else does, just more and better” which may have worked significantly better in less competitive times of the past. Like Martin says, this hampers not only scientific communication but experimentation as well. How do business schools, etc, teach students to embrace risk while not dooming the other 90% with ideas that don’t take off?

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    Carl, I would like to see more examples of how taking risks in scholarly communication can benefit you as a researcher, and not only science as a whole. Jason mentions several examples in his comment – including your open lab notebook –, one example that I particularly like (not mentioned by Jason) is GalaxyZoo.