My thoughts on revolutionising scholarly publishing in the digital age
On 14 February I was on a panel talking about the future of academic publishing for ALIA Information Online 2017. As there was no time for me to explain all of this I thought I’d post it all here with all the relevant links.
Essentially, I’m exploring the following key issues that need to be dealt with if we are ever to substantially improve, let alone revolutionise, academic publishing: speed (to access); improved reach (wider audience, not just the privileged); transparency of process; openness (for access); an expectation to use multi-media (sound, video, images); appropriate metrics; better facility and recognition for collaboration across disciplines; and interactivity.
And as a university librarian (i.e. not a scholar), I can’t stop myself from thinking that maybe we also need to decide whether scholarly publishing is really about the sharing of knowledge or just a competitive game where points are scored for individual and institutional reputations.
I must also thank some of my colleagues at UTS for their advice and suggestions, but what is written here is my personal view and it is not necessarily reflective of our institution.
I am aware of the frustration (particularly) of younger researchers with the time-lag in traditional publishing, especially when their research relates to topical issues – I’ve heard US academics talking about it in relation to issues like Black Lives Matter, and medical research, but climate change is another case in point. It really points to the need for changes around how we measure the quality of journals, especially accepting new types of peer review and editorial control. F1000Research videos are good on this – scientists say that every day the research is delayed somebody dies. A further example is Aggregate – an online platform to support the production, peer review, publication and discussion of innovative scholarship in architectural history. Places Journal seeks to combine serious journalism and open scholarship in their online free platform. They focus on the environment, social inequity, climate change, resource scarcity, human migration, technology innovation and the erosion of the public sphere. They have many academic partners across North America, Europe and now at UTS.
Transparency of process
Some researchers are very frustrated by the agonising process of peer review (and know that could be addressed more easily in the digital age with ongoing peer review). They also know that currently most peer review is NOT transparent (i.e. anonymous). See F1000 again – science should be transparent and open. In most cases, the effort put into peer review or editing is not currently recognised. This is not to suggest that we should throw the (quality) baby out with the bathwater, so an alternative is something like Publons which helps to link peer reviewers to publishers/editors and track/verify/showcase their efforts, leading to recognition for reviewing and editing.
F1000Research also say that in traditional publishing a lot of science remains unpublished, wasting the time and funding of those researchers, so they say publish everything, including dead ends – it stops other wasting years on the same nonsense.
The frustration of younger researchers with the lack of interactivity is something that could be solved by adding things like hypothesis.is – which we are now adding to our UTS ePRESS journals. Some of the examples cited above like Aggregate, F100Research and Places also seek to include more open debate, discussion and feedback well beyond the initial date of publication.
Better facility and recognition for collaboration across disciplines
Some researchers are frustrated that traditional publishing is more “siloed” in an age when most people think that complex problems need to be solved by collaborative work across several disciplines. It is also useful to have the insights of people from different fields and from actual practitioners. So, they seem to be approaching Open Access publishers to start new trans/cross disciplinary journals and the like.
This often becomes a bit of a problem because journals and research publications are still measured by traditional bibliometrics and impact factors and they are classified by fields of research which tend to categorise journals via single subject areas or disciplines. Some close-to-home examples include our Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement and the relatively new journal Project Management and Research Practice.
Openness (for access)
There are genuine frustrations surrounding scholarly publishing NOT being able to reach the objective of the research (e.g. the poor, the sick, the less privileged, the third world, etc.). Around the time of the Zika virus, there was some discussion about this which basically demonstrated that open and immediate access to information is critical to public health: eg. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v533/n7604/full/533469b.html
In Australia, almost all of the research done in universities is funded by the tax payer. I think the community deserves to have access to that research when published. Traditional scholarly publishers were not built to do this and now to meet funders’ mandates for open access they are levying fees on the authors. I think we need to dramatically rethink that model and to encourage more open access publishers within universities because it is now more feasible than ever in the digital age. Perhaps initiatives like the Open Library of Humanities (@OpenLibHums), UTS ePRESS, ANU Press, University of Adelaide Press, and Monash University Publishing, are better indicators of more open publishing platforms.
I think we could increase the impact and reach of the research by thinking outside current scholarly publishing methods and formats (e.g. articles and monographs), particularly for the humanities and social sciences. This was recently brought home to me thru my obsession with podcasts … I was listening to James Weirick on Military Justice and in introducing his new podcast in December he said he had been inspired by the three “pod-mothers” who have shown what podcasts can achieve. Here he was referring to the work of Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig and Rabia Chaudry who did so much to bring the plights of Adnan Syed (Serial S1), Bowe Bergdahl (Serial S2) and Joey Watkins (Undisclosed S2) to many MILLIONS of podcast subscribers all over the world. Weirick (that’s what he likes to be called) said that if those three women had just written newspaper or journal articles, not so much would have happened, but now much has happened and a lot of people have donated funds or written letters of support for those three people. So, I think the mediums of knowledge exchange and storytelling need to be re-examined, especially in the digital age.
I’ve noticed that quite a lot of law academics are now getting involved in those legal/justice podcasts, or being interviewed on them. There was a little bit of that here in Australia too with Dan Box’s Bowraville podcast, which probably had a good deal to do with the retrial of a suspect that is happening right now. Podcasts can go much deeper than just an article or even a segment on 60 Minutes and I think that element of weekly story telling in sound is a really powerful thing that academic publishing could benefit from.
Within improved reach we will need improved metrics that show the impact of the research. I think we need to start using services like Kudos to help research get read more widely and for the research to be applied where it is most relevant. Some large publishers are already using Kudos to extend their audiences. It can also help track the networks and improve metrics for impact, showing the reach of the research publications in the community and industry. It can help reveal what is essentially hidden research.
(See also collaboration across disciplines, above.)
An expectation to use multi-media
I recently attended a Sydney Festival Big Thinking event at UTS in which a panel of Australian Indigenous people spoke about different ways of knowing, preserving and exchanging knowledge (customs, dance, art, storytelling, languages, objects, places designed to encourage this, etc). I think the contemporary academic publishing world is still stuck in the age of the printing press (via what are essentially still pretty strictly limited textual documents in monograph or article form – on the bloody internet!).
It is now so much easier and there is an expectation for better story telling and different media to be used. For me, it is almost like we are re-learning lessons lost from the age before Gutenberg when illuminated manuscripts contained, preserved (very well) and shared songs, art, music, traditions, laws, dance, science, knowledge, commentary and stories. Is this not what we are currently struggling with in the form of “new” scholarly multi-media formats? I think a lot of social sciences and humanities “knowledge” needs non-textual forms for it to be shared and preserved, yet scholarly publishers seem not very interested in this kind of thing. Do we have something or maybe a lot to learn from the traditional owners of this land?
The panel of elders and others at the Sydney Festival event also mentioned that since Australia was first settled and claimed by the British a little over 200 years ago, we’ve managed to create major problems with the soil, the forests, the waters and the general civilisation of the continent. Indigenous Australians seemed to have managed quite well for about 50,000 years before we arrived – so they must have had ways of sharing that knowledge and known how to live more gently and cooperatively in this environment, yet this was all done without books and journals. So, are traditional monograph and journal models such a great way of sharing and publishing knowledge or just more convenient forms we can point to, measure and count?
I guess someone should at least raise the issue of open data. Major publishers are now “buying” this up and major researcher funders have been slower to react, partly because it is harder for us to meet such a mandate for open data and partly because the necessary infrastructure isn’t there yet. The longer we leave it, however, the harder it will be to catch up. There must be some initiative to start attaching open data to research outputs. The data is really important. Data is not less valuable than conclusions and discussions. It should be available to others. Falsification of open data would be easier to detect.
A somewhat related matter is the question of data and text mining: yet another issue we need to look at. Most publishers have strict controls over text mining their published content and the mechanisms to get permission to do so are clunky. The Right to Read is the Right to Mine campaign that grew out of EU copyright reviews and reform is a useful reference here: http://www.leru.org/index.php/public/news/the-right-to-read-is-the-right-to-mine/
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question and I will not even try to put a timeline on it nor estimate a rate of success against any of these issues. I do think, however, that attitudes towards and expectations of academic research publishing are changing. People are now more aware of new possibilities in the digital age, they expect immediate access to everything, everywhere and they will not want to pay for it if it is publicly funded. Many other industries have been dramatically changed or completely reinvented because of similar attitudes and expectations. Eventually scholarly publishing will change too.
Note: All images used above are mine except the Open Access diagram and they are all covered by CC licenses.