Daily Archives: August 29, 2009

Balancing Act

I’m kind of in the pickle that Maura describes – subscribed to too many sources of information that I would read if I weren’t so busy keeping up with the stream of new information. But Current Cites is always a good ‘un for finding a cross-section of interesting new stuff and this week it pointed me to a twig I must have missed in the current. Sometimes it’s only when you see it the second time, maybe just as you’re pouring a second cup of coffee int he morning, that it catches your eye.

First Mondays (an excellent and long-established open access journal) has an article by Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman on “Reinventing Academic Publishing Online.” In a nutshell, it examines the fact that the “top” academic journals remain vested in a traditional system in which maintaining barriers and exclusivity because their exclusivity is perceived as rigor and therefore value. The higher your rejection rate, the prouder you are. But there are two mistakes academic publishing can make: publishing stuff that isn’t any good and not publishing stuff that turns out to be good. It’s the cost of the latter – failing to publish something innovative and challenging for fear it might be wrong – that these authors feel is left out of the equation.

These error types trade off, so reducing one increases the other, e.g., a journal can reduce Type I errors to 0 percent by rejecting all submissions, but this also raises Type II errors to 100 percent as nothing useful is published. The commonsense principle is that to win a lottery (get value) you must buy a ticket (take risk). In academic publishing the rigor problem occurs when reducing Type I error increases Type II error more . . . Pursuing rigor alone produces rigor mortis in the theory leg of scientific progress.

The authors point to the fact that the publishing industry essentially determines who is hired and fired in universities, which flies in the face of the mission we are supposedly on and the intellectual freedom that should enable our work.

When a system becomes the mechanism for power, profit and control, idealized goals like the search for truth can easily take a back seat. Authors may not personally want their work locked away in expensive journals that only endowed western universities can afford, but business exclusivity requires it. Authors may personally see others as colleagues in a cooperative research journey, but the system frames them as competition for jobs and grants. As academia becomes a business, new ideas become threats to power rather than opportunities for knowledge growth. Journals become the gatekeepers of academic power rather than cultivators of knowledge, and theories battle weapons in promotion arenas, rather than plows in knowledge fields.

The authors suggest that under the color of “rigor” this model sustains a system in which cross-disciplinary and innovative research is unwelcome. “As more rigorous and exclusive ‘specialties’ emerge, the expected trend is an academic publishing system that produces more and more about less and less.” (And hey, it’ll make the Big Bundle even bigger and more expensive, therefore more profitable.) They think instead technology could offer ways to facilitate information exchange rather than creation of further citadels of isolated specialization. Paying more attention to the mistake of failing to publish something that turns out to be worthwhile will require the creation of a democratic open knowledge exchange which can better balance the equation.

The funny thing is that this tension has existed for a long time. Well before the Internet enabled the opportunity for fundamental change in the way we share research, both Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn described the delicate tension between maintaining an agreed-upon understanding by fending off crackpot theories and the need to allow something new to challenge the dominant paradigm. Both self interest and a more idealized notion of rigor conspire against innovation. What I find interesting about this First Monday article is the idea that our current dominant publishing model has let self-interest reign supreme, and that a new open model could let the more idealized urge to preserve that which is solid and true duke it out with ideas that challenge it. It could balance the risk/reward tradeoff involved in choosing what to publish and which questions to pursue.

By the way, what is your library planning to do for Open Access Week?

(Photo courtesy of rptnorris.)