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My lab:
The future is bright - it's the present which sucks.
I planned to post this as a comment, but it turned out to be too long. Moreover, Richard Poynder seems to moderate his comments, so I thought I'd just post the comment here, it'd be faster. Richard Poynder has posted a 42-page article on PLoS One, Open Access and the future of scholarly publishing. It's almost 2am here and I haven't had a chance to read this opus major in its entirety, but a few things just had to be commented on right away - in addition to the comments already made by Bill Hooker, which I agree with, of course.
The article seemed well-researched and nuanced and I sympathize with much of what I did read. I have a few remarks now, maybe more when I've read the whole article more thoroughly.
That something is an exponential growth in papers produced (since the end of WWII at least), accompanied by an apparent decline in the quality of peer review.
'Apparent' being the key point here. I'm not convinced a few quotes from researchers and publishers is sufficient to back that claim up. Rather, one would need some data of the type mentioned in this post, and even then, 'quality' is always in the eye of the beholder and sometimes even flawed studies turn out to be correct - more or less by accident.
Either way, assuming the 'apparent' decline were real, one may still wonder by growing an enterprise like science without adjusting the infrastructure accordingly, maybe you'd expect a much steeper decline? Maybe we're doing much better than is to be expected given the circumstances? A point which is probably not necessarily a contradiction to the points Richard is trying to make.

Towards the end, Richard is hitting the nail on the head:
The fundamental issue that PLoS appears to have overlooked is that all publishers — not excluding PLoS, and not excluding learned societies — are so focused on maximising their income that they have become blind to the true nature of the crisis confronting scholarly communication.
...and with all publishers one should emphasize the corporate, for-profit publishers!
Today, scholarship is a public good in private hands. This is one of the (several!) main factors underlying the crises Richard enumerates and explains in his article. We need to rescue scholarly publishing from corporate greed. I find it outrageous, cynical and unscrupulous to make profits off of a public good, even if it's not done in the blatantly prize-gouging way of Evilsevier et al.!
After all this praise, I must strongly disagree with the use of one single paper that had two major but fixable flaws (you cite me recounting them) as some kind of prime example for some sort of 'quality' decline. The history of scholarly publishing is not unlike some other human tomes, be it the Bible, the Quran or some other major text in that you can pick your examples to make your case for or against basically anything. For every PLoS One paper you find something 'bad' in, my scientist colleagues and I can provide you with at least two papers from so-called 'high-impact' journals that make the same mistake more often and worse. Multiple anecdotes do not data make.
I also must disagree with the impression I get from your description of PLoS financially: have you asked how much the CEO of Elsevier makes? I couldn't find the budget of PLoS (help?), but I'm sure it's less than the 700M Euros in adjusted operating profits that Elsevier is raking in every year.
However, I do agree that nothing is keeping publishers from going all author-pays and then hiking the prices like subscriptions now. Markets don't invariably decrease prices and many a community at least here in Germany are rolling back their privatization experiments, because often enough, markets don't seem to work very well for some public goods.

From what I have read, Richard's article makes it very clear that:
  1. The scientific community has long outgrown its infrastructure and only the discipline, dedication and passion of scientists has kept it from completely collapsing long ago. Scientific publishing is only the most visible symptom. Richard may be right that PLoS One in some respects made the shortcomings of current scientific publishing more visible. I, for one, welcome this trend, as I'm of the opinion that we should have started with serious publishing reform about a decade ago and not just now. If PLoS made everyone see all that's wrong with scholarly publishing today, it's a decade late.
  2. Journal hierarchies are deader than dead. Who cares where a 'bad' or 'good' paper has been published? The real scientific communication takes place elsewhere already! Sadly, nobody is really keeping track of it or trying to make a permanent record of it, because it caught the community by surprise even though it had it coming for about a decade.
  3. By refusing to give up historical baggage and embrace modern communication technology, scholarly publishing increasingly is starting to look like a horse pulling a Ferrari: a silly attempt at imitating a modern technology.

I agree: we must radically reform scholarly publishing and we should start by cutting out the middlemen: for-profit publishers have become obsolete. All the libraries need in order to archive scholarly communications today is a $500 PC - not a 5 billion publishing industry. (In this respect, I have been arguing for quite some time now that PLoS needs to be seriously considering phasing out their other journals, if they want to keep their credibility. But that's a minor point.) Peer-review is essential to science, whether it happens before or after publication and it is as alive and kicking today as it has ever been, as we can see whenever a 'bad' article is published: no matter where it appears, in Science, in Nature, in PLoS One or in the Journal of Cosmology: scientists spring to the fore and rip it to shreds. What is lacking is a system that's not decades or even centuries old to keep track of this process. Isn't it great that scientists just go out and seek their own communication channels since the community at large is not keeping up? Scholarly Publishing only looks doom and gloom for those rooted in the corporate publishing world and rightfully so!

The problems Richard describes in his article all have technological solutions, most of them are already available, just not for the scientific community - yet. PLoS One has put its finger in this gaping wound, poured salt over it and then stirred. I think that was about time - it could have come ten years sooner. Why don't we have these solutions, yet (or: why does Richard still, in 2011, have plenty of reasons to write a whopping 42 page article)? Historical baggage and 5 billions in profits every year make for some awesome inertia. Nevertheless, if there ever was a reason to believe that scientists can overcome this inertia, it's PLoS One, along with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed and all the other technologies developed by the general public and so far mostly shunned by the majority of scientists for, ironically, all but non-scientific use.
The future of scholarly publishing does look bright - just not for publishers.
Posted on Tuesday 08 March 2011 - 01:29:31 comment: 0

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