Last week I attended the "Publish or Perish?: The Future of Scholarly Publishing & Careers" conference at UC Davis. The hashtag was #publishperish14. Conference co-organizer Jonathan Eisen has created a Storify of each day's tweets, available here and here.
The conference centered around three main threads: 1. the tenacity of the status quo in scholarly communication; 2. a ferment of ideas and projects that challenge this status quo; and 3. a proposed solution that would cut the Gordion knot which prevents scholars from using the Web to its full potential.
1. Tenacity of the Status Quo
On this blog I have often cited Michael Clarke's brilliant 2010 essay "Why Hasn't Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?" I am doing so again today because Clarke explicates the central problem: the Web has made dissemination of scholarly content easier, for sure. But on its own the Web does not support the regitstration, validation, filtration, and designation of the value of new contributions to scholarly discourse (these contributions can be journal articles or monographs, the point holds for any field.)
And so, yes, the Web does have the potential to be more revolutionary than the printing press. But in reality it has simply increased the flood of what was already too many items to read before the Web existed. No wonder scholars rely on the creaky infrastructure of peer review, scholarly presses, and high impact factor journals as a way to separate the signal from the noise.
Proof of that conservatism was in ready abundance at Davis. On Day 1 Heather Joseph described how she had expected a core transformation of the scholarly publishing enterprise more than 2o years ago, and is still waiting for it. On Day 2 Diane Harley presented her extensive research that validates the deep conservatism of academics. Harley's most salient finding is that younger academics, who would presumably be more interested in making innovative use of the Web, are actually the most conservative scholars of all. They do what their elders tell them, whether that's to submit a paper to Science or to submit a manuscript to the UC Press.
This conservatism persists despite the fact that every aspect of the traditional scholarly communications infrastructure is deeply flawed. Peer review and monograph publishing decisions are too conservative, and the impact factor can be easily gamed. But for the harried professor with a full teaching load, focusing on this reality will never be a priority. That's the task for bloggers like me and many others who were at the conference, who generally write these posts in a "preaching to the choir" manner.
And yet I press on with this writing, knowing that the Web really does have revolutionary potential for scholarly communications. This was the attitude of many others as well, as the conference presented many examples of challenges to the status quo.
2. Challenges to the status quo
Here's a sampling of the interesting projects presented at the conference. The first three provide new means of doing scholarly work, the final two provide new means of interacting with scholarly work.
New means of doing work
Pre-print server for the life sciences: bioRxiv. It was nice to see this child of arXiv, the very well established pre print server that began with physics. But I was disappointed that life scientists needed their own pre print server and could not simply join the party at arXiv. As a non-academic who is an intrepid observer of academic mores, I will never fully understand these tribal lines. This is why I am a librarian, as we are the best positioned to be partners with any and all.
Open evaluation: PLOS Labs open evaluation tool. One of the first major projects of the PLOS Labs, this tool seeks to produce a more objective understanding of peer review decisions. Reviewers would rate the paper along a scale of interest, and also categorize it by a pre-determined taxonomy. This would all be open and transparent; no more free text missives that never see the light of day. PLOS Labs Director Jonathan Dugan has a background in biomedical informatics, and that comes through here.
C Score: Rapid Science. Tech CEO and journalist Sarah Greene presented her vision of a platform that would reward collaboration on critical biomedical problems, and provide a unified "C Score" of a paper's impact. While Rapid Science is still in beta and seeking funding, Greene has many NIH contacts and appears positioned to make this dream a reality. She wants to end the perverse incentive in which potential research collaborators are also perceived as potential competitors. Lifesaving research is not a zero sum game.
New means of interacting with scholarship
Article visualization: OA Sandbox. Using the corpus of 3 million articles in PubMed Central, the Sandbox provides new means of visualizing and interacting with an article. Rather than reading linearly, the reader can pluck out figures and tables and annotate them. The Sandbox uses the same technology that powers the open access journal eLife, with the goal of facilitating a more robust and dynamic user experience. It is an exciting effort to let the Web be the Web, and not merely serve as a delivery service for PDFs.
The curated journal: Limn. Rather than following the traditional peer review model, Limn juxtaposes interesting takes on a given theme and lets the reader make their own connections. It's creative curation, not ponderous peer review. I loved it. Also of note is that Limn's entire publishing infrastructure is cloud-based and extraordinarily inexpensive (Pete Binfield made a similar point about his journal, PeerJ.) So we really are in the position to let the Web be the Web, and in so doing transform scholarly communication.
3. Cutting the Gordion Knot
But will we seize this moment, or will we continue to trod down a road of incremental change in the face of amazing opportunties? I hope the former but fear the latter, as long as the incentives weigh heavily in favor of conservatism in scholarly publishing.
Then again, that could change in a flash. At the end of the confercence UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi proposed a bold idea: that scholars be granted tenure automatically upon hire, freeing them to disseminate their scholarship however they want. They would still need to pass rigorous evaluations for purposes of adavnacement, but would not need to fit their work into pre-existing molds.
In other words, no more conflating form (the PDF, the monograph) with the function of sharing knowledge. The means could be varied while the end is fixed. This made absolutely perfect sense to me. I hope that movement starts in Davis and sweeps the world.