Publishers perishing

It’s arcane. It’s hidebound. It’s niche, intentionally obfuscated, and elitist. It’s written almost entirely in -cue retching noises- passive voice. That’s right, it’s the world of academic publishing, boys and girls! A world not only irrelevant to most people’s lives, but anti-relavant, deriving its sense of status from exactly how far up its own ass it can crawl. (Ok, that’s a bit harsh. But… you know who you are.)

For reasons that run in the same direction as but aren’t exactly like my copyright interests I am fascinated with methods of publishing in the world of academic journals. By methods of publishing I mean Open Access and alternative models to traditional peer review. Since a 2006 article for Seed which I over researched in my unfortunate way (‘here’s 4000 words of your 1300 word article… pick the ones you like’) I have known more than is useful about the changes in both, and their complete irrelevance to one another. Well, nearly complete. OA journals can be peer reviewed in any ol’ way, even the ol’ way, but toying with peer review models doesn’t really work with the old print system, so it helps to have some OA platform to play on. But let’s ignore changes in peer review. Assume all journals use the same system of rigor, and that it produces the same result. (Ahem.)

OA means simply this: you academic journal is published online, free and available to all comers. It sounds weirdly like The Pirate Bay, or Grokkster or something, but there’s a few important differences. The people that write in academic journals do it for impact, not money. Never money. “Publish or perish” is about status, not pay, and getting paid is a breach of ethics. You pay to get published, just like the person on the other end pays to read you in the old model. The people that peer review don’t pay money to do it, but they don’t get paid, so they do pay with time. The friggin’ editorial boards usually aren’t paid. It would be as if Lars Ulrich and his producers would never dream of taking money for their work, and only hoped that Elektra was hard at work doing whatever it could to get their tracks into the hands of true metal heads as fast and easily as possible. And that’s how all of this field has worked for hundreds of years before the wah wah was even invented.

If the creative and intellectual work of journals is unpaid, who the hell (you might reasonably ask) is collecting and pocketing all that money? Basically, the printers and manager/secretary types. Elsevier is the purest of middlemen- they not only don’t add intellectual value, it’s pretty much against the rules for them to do so.

If the past 17 years have shown anything, it’s that the net is hell on middlemen. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that with all the same academics offering to do all the same work for the same price (free or negative), charging on the other end for journal subscriptions is just a way for researchers to hide the material they are trying to promote and finally achieve a zen like balance of life long expert toil and total obscurity.

The world wide web was actually invented to do the thing that turned companies like Elsevier from vital parts of intellectual infrastructure into increasingly desperate parasitic lampreys attached to the body of human progress. Science has taught us that organisms displaced from their ecologies go crazy and fight like hell to survive. Nothing, with the possible exception of giant manatees, goes gently into that good night. Expect no different from the journal publishers who archive those ecology notes.

The writing is on the wall, yeah, but that still doesn’t explain why you should care, especially if you are here because you like my desserts or something. You should care because you want a jet car, a simple pill that cures cancer, perfect schools for your children, to live on the moon, the reversal of male pattern baldness, kumquats that never go bad, or perhaps even a planet your grandchildren can safely inhabit in 100 years. Science (and all academia really) seems like it’s about braniacs pelted with apples in patent offices or something, but it’s actually about tiny pieces of the puzzle of how things work being slowly assembled by more people in more directions. It’s an accelerating accretion of understanding and power over the world as it is. It’s exponential, metaphorically speaking, in how every piece of new knowledge opens up the door to n more pieces, etc. The fuel for this growth is eyeballs. (No, actually this time, really, not like the .com bubble.) OA is the rocket fuel approach. Let everyone see it the instant it happens, add small amounts of time, and viola, you get to live in the future.

One of the only solid downsides of OA is that the horrid scholar’s passive voice is now googlable, and not restricted to other academics who are presumably in on the joke. (“We noted across archives that vicious abuse of the English language had been seen.”) It’s the price you pay for progress.

The problems is publish or perish is about status as well as impact, so big name journals get to exist for a while longer largely holding up the progress they once solely enabled.

Which brings us to government action. Moves like the NIH requiring all research they fund to be OA within a year and FRPAA do a lot to get us closer to our jet cars and full heads of hair, even when those things aren’t directly being researched. Also, it takes a government to put an industry out of its misery when the time has come. But most governments are irresponsible twerps and ignore the painful screaming, letting the beasts suffer terribly before finally expiring on their own.

Peter Suber, a philosopher that accidently became the OA guy in the 90s, points to Ireland as a good example of what to do. They simultaneously launched OA archives at their universities while requiring funded research to end up in them. Coordination like this is a great idea, both in the potential mercy killing of Elsevier’s publishing model and in boosting both Irish and non-Irish research. (Is there an Irish word for Goyim or Gaijin? There should be.)