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Clearly, competition is a great incentive and I think everyone can attest to that and not only from personal experience. If competition is lacking, all kinds of bad things tend to happen. For instance, in scholarly publishing, lack of competition leads to the kind of behavior that brought the boycott movement upon corporate publisher Elsevier. How can there be lack of competition when there are more then 24,000 different journals to chose from you ask? The reasons include the following three points: For one, there are only a few publishers out there, with Elsevier owning more than 2,000 journals alone. Second, the part where revenue is generated is mostly reading the journal, not publishing in it: the paper you want to read only exists once, so for each paper the publisher has the monopoly and can thus virtually charge anything they can get away with, and they usually do. Given this behavior it is straightforward to put the blame on the 'misbehaving' corporate publishers and there definitely is plenty of behavior to detest. However, these corporations only do what corporations do: get as much money out of their business as possible. This is their fiduciary duty, so while we may not like what they do, there's very little morally reprehensible, from a market-oriented point of view.

Thus, while the renewed attention and vigor for the Open Access movement is to be welcomed and enforced, I do have quite large reservations as to the motivations and goals of some of the organizers and supporters of this boycott. Tim Gowers, for instance, one of the main drivers behind the boycott, has recently formalized his and some colleagues' motivations for the boycott movement. It is somewhat surprising that nowhere in this document is there a reference to the underlying cause for the existence of such parasitic publishers, namely that we, the scientists chose to hand over our scholarly communication system to them in the first place. Not surprising, on the other hand, is the baffled response of the publishers to the boycott who basically wonder "nobody is forcing you to hand over your papers to us, so why are you complaining?" Both sides are completely missing the underlying root cause for the quagmire scholarly communication has been in ever since the 'serials crisis' started some decades ago: Scientists neither have much choice on which papers/journals to read, nor where to publish their work. As far as I can tell, only one major outlet so far has addressed this issue, Martin Eve in the Guardian. Why can't scientists chose where to publish you ask?

Well, this is where the third reason for the lack of competition among journals comes in, journal rank. Publications in hi-rank journals are worth more on the job market than publications in a lo-rank journal. While this is not the only factor for employment (there's also the old-boys-networks and club memberships and such), but (if a recent single case is anything to go by) these other options at most account for 4 out of 15 jobs. With the number of tenured jobs decreasing by more than half in the US and also in Germany the number of PhD graduates per year equaling that of the total number of professorships (professors make up only 16% of total university research staff), there is the clear awareness in all junior scientists (i.e., under the age of ~42) that the chances of of ever obtaining job security in science and live your dream is ridiculously low. In other words, there is an exceedingly high level of competition for the few coveted spots in hi-rank journals, some of which reject 92% of all submissions. Science is not unique in this competition, e.g., music, art or acting seem to be other obvious examples where the chances to make a living in your chosen profession maybe even worse. Of course we all know where this leads musicians, artists and actors: onto the couch of the producer, director or gallery-owner of course. Similarly, the mostly professional editors of hi-ranking journals are very popular VIPs whenever they show themselves at scientific conferences.

And this is where science starts to differ from other professions: the societal damage done by the 'wrong' actor or actress in a movie is probably less than that of a fraudulent publication in a hi-rank journal such as that linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Recent figures seem to indicate that misbehavior is widespread, that the rate of misconduct leading to retractions is accelerating and that most of the retractions come from hi-rank journals. I have detailed the peer-reviewed evidence that journal rank harms science in four previous posts, so I will not reiterate any more of these findings here. One more consequence of journal rank is that all scientists, but especially junior scientists have little choice other than try and publish their work in as hi-ranking journals as possible. Thus, one of the underlying root causes for the existence of parasitic publishers is not publisher misbehavior, that's just a symptom. One of the main underlying root causes for the existence of parasitic publishers are we, the scientists, who continue to "want to see a hierarchy of journals" despite evidence that this is type of competition is counter-productive. Therefore, while I applaud and support the boycott of Elsevier, we need to change our scholarly communication substantially if we don't want to face a boycott of the next publishers once/if Elsevier caves in. How do we do that?

In two previous posts I have argued that libraries seem to be the most natural and cost-effective entity to serve as custodians of our work and communication thereof. We now have the technology to do everything a journal hierarchy does better without any of its drawbacks, so clinging to journal rank in this day and age is really not only anachronistic but also quite irrational. Unfortunately, only few researchers are aware of the technology that is available right now that will assist us in, e.g. filtering and sorting of scientific research papers much better than current journal editors ever could. In fact, it is precisely the employers of these editors, corporate publishers, that have kept this technology from us and forced us to live with a 17th century scholarly communication system.

If we brought down corporate publishers and had the full ~10bUS$ annually at our disposal that we currently pay them, we could have an IT assisted alert system at our disposal that would filter and sort all articles in any fields of interest according to a rank of relevance that the user specifies. This kind of technology has been around for about a decade and lots of companies are using it - only scientists are largely unaware of this technology and its potential. There are two main ways to accomplish this: destroy the power of journal rank and replace it with a superior, library-based communication model. Given the sad state scholarly communication is in, given that we would theoretically have ~10bUS$ at our disposal every single year (~4bUS$ if we only took publishers profits away and kept publishing at the same cost as before) and given that the technology is readily available, it will be easy and quick to develop something that is superior to what we have today - and it doesn't even have to be perfect right away, only better and that should be very easy indeed. If we reform scholarly communication in such a way, we hit many birds with a single stone, so why be content with throwing a pebble at a giant vulture in the hope that it might fly away?
Posted on Thursday 09 February 2012 - 19:01:30 comment: 0
open access   publishing   boycott   elsevier   libraries   


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