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Reopening the source

"There is a disruption coming." Words of doom?

Several months back we discussed Michael Salmony's fear that the Internet is about to destroy science. Salmony reminded that his comments came in a talk on the virtues of the open economy, and then noted the following dangers:

- Current quality-assurance methods (peer-review, quality editing, fact checking etc) are being undermined. Thus potentially leading to an avalanche of attention-seeking open garbage drowning out the quality research;
- The excellent high-minded ideals (breaking the hold of the big controllers, making all knowledge freely accessible etc) of OA are now being subverted by models that actually ask authors (or their funders) to spend thousands of dollars per article to get it "openly accessible". Thus again privileging the rich and well connected.

The University of Bath associate professor Joanna Bryson rather agreed with Salmony, also citing the importance of peer review. So I stipulate: yes, peer review is crucial for doing good science.

In a posting deploring the death of the monograph, Bryson notes that, like other forms of publishing, many academic publishers are small and struggle for sustainability. She also points to a Dutch presentation arguing that open access costs more.

Since she, as an academic researcher, has skin in this game, we have to give weight to her thoughts. However, many researchers dissent, arguing that academic publishers like Elsevier, Axel Springer profit from an unfair and unsustainable business model. Either way, an existential crisis is rolling toward academic publishers like a giant spherical concrete cow.

So to yesterday's session on the ten-year future of research, hosted by < ahref="https://www.ehfg.org/projects-events/health-futures/">European Health Forum Gastein and sponsored by Elsevier. The quote of doom we began with was voiced there.

The focal point was a report (PDF), the result of a study by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI. Their efforts eventually generated three scenarios: 1) "brave open world", in which open access publishing, collaboration, and extensive data sharing rule; 2) "tech titans", in which technology companies dominate research; 3) "Eastern ascendance", in which China leads. The most likely is a mix of the three. This is where several of us agreed that the mix is already our present. We surmised, cattily, that this was more an event looking for a solution to Elsevier's future. That remains cloudy.

The rest does not. For the last year I've been listening to discussions about how academic work can find greater and more meaningful impact. While journal publication remains essential for promotions and tenure within academia, funders increasingly demand that research produce new government policies, changed public conversations, and fundamentally more effective practice.

Similarly, is there any doubt that China is leading innovation in areas like AI? The country is rising fast. As for "tech titans", while there's no doubt that these companies lead in some fields, it's not clear that they are following the lead of the great 1960s and 1970s corporate labs like Bell Labs, Xerox PARC and IBM Watson, which invested in fundamental research with no connection to products. While Google, Facebook, and Microsoft researchers do impressive work, Google is the only one publicly showing off research, that seems unrelated to its core business">.

So how long is ten years? A long time in technology, sure: in 2009: Twitter, Android, and "there's an app for that" were new(ish), the iPad was a year from release, smartphones got GPS, netbooks were rising, and 3D was poised to change the world of cinema. "The academic world is very conservative," someone at my table said. "Not much can change in ten years."

Despite Sci-Hub, the push to open access is not just another Internet plot to make everything free. Much of it is coming from academics, funders, librarians, and administrators. In the last year, the University of California dropped Elsevier rather than modify its open access policy or pay extra for the privilege of keeping it. Research consortia in Sweden, Germany, and Hungary have had similar disputes; a group of Norwegian institutions recently agreed to pay €9 million a year to cover access to Elsevier's journals and the publishing costs of its expected 2,000 articles.

What is slow to change is incentives within academia. Rising scholars are judged much as they were 50 years ago: how much have they published, and where? The conflict means that younger researchers whose work has immediate consequences find themselves forced to choose between prioritizing career management - via journal publication - or more immediately effective efforts such as training workshops and newspaper coverage to alert practitioners in the field of new problems and solutions. Choosing the latter may help tens of thousands of people - at a cost of a "You haven't published" stall to their careers. Equally difficult, today's structure of departments and journals is poorly suited for the increasing range of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary research. Where such projects can find publication remains a conundrum.

All of that is without considering other misplaced or perverse incensitives in the present system: novel ideas struggle to emerge; replication largely does not happen or fails, and journal impact factors are overvalued. The Internet has opened up beneficial change: Ben Goldacre's COMPare project to identify dubious practices such as outcome switching and misreported findings, and the push to publish data sets; and preprint servers give much wider access to new work. It may not be all good; but it certainly isn't all bad.

Illustrations: A spherical cow jumping over the moon (via Wikimedia.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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