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Current Scientific Publishing Methods Problematic 154

A recent examination of current scientific publishing methods shows that they are problematic at best, treating the entire process like an economic system, with publishers as bidders at an auction, authors as sellers, and the community at large as consumers. "The authors then go on to discuss a variety of economic terms that they think apply to publishing, but the quality of the analogies varies quite a bit. It's easy to accept that the limited number of high-profile publishers act as an oligarchy and that they add value through branding. Some of the other links are significantly more tenuous. The authors argue that scientific research suffers from an uncertain valuation, but this would require that the consumers — the scientists — can't accurately judge what's significant. "
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Current Scientific Publishing Methods Problematic

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:21PM (#25358021) Journal

    publishers as bidders at an auction, authors as sellers, and the community at large as consumers

    Hmmm, there's some term I'm thinking of that deals with people in the middle of the source and the destination that take money for acting as men in the middle when they're not doing anything or providing any service except being in the middle of the transaction. Also, it's beneficial to the sellers & the consumers to eliminate these people. I think they're called 'rich greedy bastards.'

    Seriously, hosting a document for me to view doesn't cost $100/mo. so why are you trying to charge me that? I know it's primarily physics but if any other field wanted to pull their heads out of their asses, they would leave the journals to the professors and start up something like arxiv [] for the rest of humanity that can't afford an outrageous premium!

  • by Chaos Incarnate ( 772793 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:30PM (#25358165) Homepage

    Seriously, hosting a document for me to view doesn't cost $100/mo. so why are you trying to charge me that?

    So they don't devalue the print versions, which is where they make all their cash.

  • Re:Huh? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by larry bagina ( 561269 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:30PM (#25358169) Journal

    And there's a good chance government intervention was involved in the market failure.

  • by slashdotlurker ( 1113853 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:32PM (#25358187)
    There are things that you can run like a business, and there are things that you cannot. Without meaning to be political about it, look at what 8 years of running the country like a business with an MBA at the top has got us.
    I have not read the article. If the summary is accurate reflection of the authors' point about this, then it is at once misguided, and foolhardy. The purpose of business in a modern capitalist economy is to produce goods at low prices that the consumers can afford, generate enough profit to please the shareholders and to set aside enough money to do research to develop the goods and services to increase these profits and consumer good down the road. Sure, businesses cannot be left alone to do what they wish and government regulations limit unchecked profit-mongering, but the primary purpose of businesses is to establish a market share and earn profit for the shareholders.
    Contrast this with the purpose of scientific research. The purpose varies from gaining a more accurate understanding of physical, chemical and biological phenomena to leveraging these phenomena into processes and contraptions that improve the quality of human life (where you lie on this spectrum depends on how pure/fundamental or applied your area of research is). The only shareholders in this process are the authors of scientific work, and their reward varies from just scientific renown to funding for future research or even commercialization of the fruits of their research. However, to achieve the most progress, scientific research tends to be 'open source', in the sense that anyone capable of understanding, and with financial resources to buy access to the journals (if the work is not presented in the growing number of free journals online) can read not only what was done, but also how it was done (something commercial concerns never reveal).
    Of course, scientific journals are often run like a business (at least successful and well-renowned ones), but to extend these ideas to the actual business of carrying out research is utterly misguided. The goals of business (from a businessman's pov) and science (from a scientist's pov) are very different. The authors might as well apply these ideas to conduct of a military for all the relevance it has.
    There are a host of other objections to such treatment as well, but I will pause here as people know what they are.
  • by einer ( 459199 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:32PM (#25358215) Journal

    Why don't they just start their own wiki? I would find a great deal of value in a wiki moderated by a team of reputable scientists that published their findings to the great peer review workflow.

  • Blame Google? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:33PM (#25358223)

    They could do more to help. At $15-25 a read most scientific papers are beyond the means of ordinary folks. Even if you are at a university or institute that subscribes to some journals the chances of getting what you want if you're casually browsing across disciplines (from which many great creative insights come) is slim.

    I think the search engines contribute to this problem because the search algorithms do not take account of availability. Search for any specialist subject and you will see the first 10 pages dominated by links to the gatekeepers of knowledge who offer shallow abstracts and for-pay access. Somewhere after page 10 you will find an obscure link to the actual authors website where you can get the paper.

    Google has the technology to rank availability above kissing the publishers asses. I can only assume they choose not to act in the best interests of the community.


  • by Relic of the Future ( 118669 ) <dales AT digitalfreaks DOT org> on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:37PM (#25358305)
    Amen to that! It looks like the best "value added" this pro-publisher piece could come up with was "We add value through branding".

    Scientific journal publishers are surviving on one thing alone: inertia. And while it makes me sad to see the RIAA try to pull culture with it to its grave, it makes me *furious* to see these groups trying to pull science down with them.

    Scientist do the writing, the editing, the peer-review, the *typesetting*... and then turn over the rights to their work for the privledge of paying up to $3,000 per seat to access it. When disseminating information was expensive, this made sense, but now... not so much. But like produces of shiny plastic discs, they'll pervert the laws for years to come to try to buy a few more years of life.

  • by Otter ( 3800 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:38PM (#25358321) Journal
    You don't make money from scientific publications. (On the contrary, you typically pay page charges.) You benefit because no one is going to give you a job or research funding if all you produce is a bunch of self-published manuscripts on your website.
  • by DrLang21 ( 900992 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:42PM (#25358395)
    Publishers serve as "unbiased" (yeah I know that's debatable) forums for peer review of scientific journalism and create centralized repositories that make finding articles a lot easier. They are hardly a middle man that adds no value. With that said, charging unsubscribed users $29 for a single four to six page article before they can even know if it will be useful is outrageous.
  • by xplenumx ( 703804 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:50PM (#25358527)
    I looked at scientific journals, and I honestly can't see much of an incentive to appear there.

    Having a high publication helps a graduate student land a good post-doctoral opportunity. As a post-doc, you'll need a good publication record (Nature, Science, Cell) if you want to land a good faculty position at a top university (tenure track). A scientist that can semi-regularly publish in the top journals will have an easier time earning grants (without such, they wouldn't be able to run a lab). Without a good publication record, a junior faculty won't get tenure (the review is typically 5-7 years for the biological sciences post hire). Publications - no, make that publications in good journals - is everything.

    From the scientist's perspective, if they have pure research, then, they can put it on a web site, such as the university web site or even their own, and just skip the b.s.

    Any yahoo can post on a website. The reasoning behind scientific journals is that the science is peer reviewed before being accepted. While not everything published on Nature, Science or Cell is top quality work (politics does play a role), the signal to noise ratio is much higher than say, International Immunology. The science presented in the top journals usually has a much higher impact factor than the 'lower' journals; i.e A paper published in Nature Immunology or Nature Medicine typically has a much broader impact on the field than, say, a paper published in Journal of Immunology. That's not to say that the JI paper is worse than the Nat. Imm. or Nat. Med. paper - it's not. Just that the JI paper will likely be much more narrow in scope.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 13, 2008 @01:57PM (#25358627)

    You don't make money from scientific publications. (On the contrary, you typically pay page charges.) You benefit because no one is going to give you a job or research funding if all you produce is a bunch of self-published manuscripts on your website.

    You don't make money from going to school. (On the contrary, you typically pay class charges.) You benefit because no one is going to give you a job or research funding if all you produce is a list of degrees you've given yourself.

  • by sexconker ( 1179573 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @02:01PM (#25358697)

    Information doesn't want anything.
    YOU want information to be free.

  • by Vornzog ( 409419 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @02:06PM (#25358757)

    Instead of claiming that the whole system is broken, just fix the breakdowns in the current system.

    The authors argue that scientific research suffers from an uncertain valuation, but this would require that the consumers â" the scientists â" can't accurately judge what's significant.

    Any given paper does suffer from 'uncertain valuation', but uncertain doesn't mean the consumers have no clue.

    Consider the impact factor of the journal to which the paper was submitted, the reputation of the author, the actual evidence that has been presented in the paper, the fact that the paper has undergone peer review, and what impact the paper would have its claims were to have merit.

    In combination, these factors allow better papers to tend to float to the surface. This is fairly typical of a market.

    Most fields have decent market regulation built-in, in the form of peer review and independent verification of results.

    Politically charged fields (global warming) tend toward unregulated market behavior. Papers are no longer selected based on scientific merit, but instead on hype/scare factor. This makes the value of a paper much more uncertain, and leads to a nasty failure mode (see the current world economy).

    There are models that do not have such nasty failure modes (or at least have very different failure modes). Usually, these also fail to produce such good results in the common case.

    I dislike the current scientific publishing system because the publishers tend to be paid by both the author and the consumer, and can generally force the author to relinquish copyright. However, the quality of the system seems to me to be far better than this article supposes.

  • Re:Huh? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by internerdj ( 1319281 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @02:09PM (#25358801)
    I don't get it. To prevent a free market from growing into a cartel, there has to be an independant agency to (at the very least) verify the truthfulness of the marketing of items. That strives against the idea that the market is free because there is an agent restricting trade by verifying facts. Will someone explain to me how a market can be truely free and not devolve into a conglomeration of companies screwing the populous out of their money through treatury and customer lock-in?
  • Putt's Law (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Moof123 ( 1292134 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @02:18PM (#25358945)

    Due to the publish or perish mindset at universities, scientific authors must be prolific. Putt's Law (good book) lampoons this quite well, roughly akin to an Amway style ponzi scheme. Sharing new knowledge with the larger community is no longer among any of the major motives for cranking out papers. Frankly the system punishes those who would compile and distill the huge number of obtuse and often stupid articles into a useable form for us rank and file engineers. Such useful efforts are not "new and novel", despite what would be a great service for those of us doomed to wade through the stacks and stacks of crap papers written in acadamia-ese.

    In my job, a hardware design engineer, I find that most of the modern papers are indecipherable and irrelevant at best. Only occasional gems make it through and actually apply to my day job (of designing state of the art T&M hardware). By contrast, the old journals from the 70's and 80's easily have a 10:1 better signal to noise ratio, despite their dated nature.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 13, 2008 @02:52PM (#25359401)

    You make is seem so objective. As a scientist I can honestly say that publishing has become a racket. It used to be you sent a little postcard and received a copy of the article from the scientist who had published it. Now they want you to buy the damn thing on line or subscribe to that journal for hundreds if not thousands a year.

    Peer review is often no more than an attempt to stifle other peoples work. At one time science was brought to the people..may be that's why we are such an scientifically illiterate nation! We still put all the articles in Ivory Tower Journals that few people in the mainstream read.

    Finally the politics of publishing is worse than you think furthermore, many journals it's not about how good the work is but whether you can adapt it to their "publishing format."

  • by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @03:02PM (#25359541) Homepage Journal

    One of the major problems with scientific journals and the peer review process is that we have a positive bias for publication, in that you are much more likely to be published if your study has positive results than if it has - equally valid so as not to have everybody else keep doing the same thing and failing - negative results.

    Half of getting into Science and Nature is politics, not science.

    And just TRY to get something published about improved methodology in statistics for genetics studies ... hah! You have to publish in obscure journals or start your own self-publishing annual or biannual workshop and then attach it to a positive study to get it out there.

  • by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @03:05PM (#25359591) Homepage Journal

    No, scientists do not get paid for the papers they write by the journals. Their reputation though is almost solely built upon their published work. Also, universities often give a bonus if a certain number of publications is written during a year. Same with government grants.

    And you don't get tenure if you don't have a good publishing record for your papers, with yourself as a lead for a few, and co-author for some of your earlier work.

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @03:10PM (#25359669) Homepage Journal

    t one time science was brought to the people.. may be that's why we are such an scientifically illiterate nation!

    Not really, most people out there would struggle to understand even the abstract of a proper[1] scientific paper.

    Basics first. There are people out there who don't understand evolution. There are people out there who think catalysts are a loophole [] in the laws of thermodynamics.

    Obligatory car analogy: making all the roads good enough for F1 cars[2] won't help if all the other cars are Ladas.

    [1] as in aimed at other scientists.
    [2] for US readers: like Indy cars but the steering works in both directions.

  • by kocsonya ( 141716 ) on Monday October 13, 2008 @05:21PM (#25361571)

    "... treating the entire process like an economic system, with publishers as bidders at an auction, authors as sellers, and the community at large as consumers."

    Not really, not at least in biomed papers.
    With those the scientist actually *pays* the publisher to print the article. A paper, especially if it contains colour images (microscopic slides, colourful graphs etc) can set you back by several thousand dollars. That's why there's a little disclaimer under each article that states that since the author paid for the publication, the article legally is paid advertisement.

    So no, the authors are not sellers. Only the publishers are the sellers, selling article space to the scientists, advertisement space to corporations and the end result back to scientists. The scientists who publish don't even get the complimentary free copy, although as an author, you can ask them to send you the PDF that you sent them in the first place; now this service is free. On the other hand, if you want the whole magazine on your bookshelf, fork out $200 for a single issue.

    It is a wonderful business model:

    - Get the article from scientist (free)
    - Send it to other scientists for peer review (free)
    - Accept it and charge the author (income)
    - Sell the advertisement space, at least 50% of the mag (income)
    - Print the mag (expense)
    - Sell the mag *way* above production/distribution cost (income)
    - Keep the copyright to every article so that the author can't republish it without paying you (possible income)
    - Profit!!!

    The Underpants Gnomes had no clue about business...

    Plus there are further tricks - if you manage to bribe the execs of some research association so that membership in the assocation also means a compulsory subscription to your periodical, then the customer base is guaranteed. Of course it is usually sold as "we had to increase our membership fee, but now membership also includes a complimentary subscription to magazine X". This of course increases your readership, making your ranking higher among the sci mag list.

    Ah, yes. Chances are that the money they take from the scientist is public money from some research grant. Yet the copyright to the article belongs to the publisher, a private organisation that actually has very little to do with scientific research and everything to do with making profit. That's clever! Even better, that when research grants are awarded, they check your publication record. If you published your articles on the Web, that is worth exactly nothing. Publishing a handful of articles in a couple of those high-ranking expensive publications significantly increases your chance to get a grant, so that you can publish some more...

    Imagine if the **AA could find a way to implement this! Every musician and actor paying them to be included on a CD or in a film, plus selling ads even smack in the middle of a CD (music stops, someone screams about the advantages of washing powder X, music continues) and making it compulsory that members of any civil organisation buy a certain number of CDs or DVDs every month. Those Hollywood dudes know diddly squat about making profit.

  • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by azgard ( 461476 ) on Tuesday October 14, 2008 @02:07AM (#25365511)

    Not only that, it's even worse (though I agree completely with what you said). Even if you assume perfect information, Steve Keen has proven that the equilibrium for finite number of companies is always a cartel.

    The classical argument about competition on free market that economists make is wrong, because it at one point relies the assumption that they affect each other so little that it can be neglected, but then they are trying to add up those zeros together. Another possible refutation is that if this argument was true, then the iterated prisoner dilemma would never have a cooperative stable solution.

"If the code and the comments disagree, then both are probably wrong." -- Norm Schryer