Thursday, October 11, 2012

Clubs and cliques in STM publishing and the impact on Open Access (#openaccess)

I know that one the major reasons Open Access has had a hard time getting a foothold into the publishing world is because of the clubishness of science and scientists.  People often do not know about the social aspects of scientists and their work.  This is one of the reasons that associations, societies [like clubs] and conferences play such an important part of a scientist's career.

Everybody wants to feel that they belong by being a member of a variety of social groups [clubs].  Scientists are no different, and there are differences from one club to the next.  Some are more exclusive than others.  There are clubs of scientists who were educated at Ivy League schools [a pretty small club], and clubs of those who haven't been.  There are other kinds of clubs, such as the set of people who:
  • Work at an ivy league school
  • Are a tenured professor at an ivy league school
  • Got 1600 (or 2400) on the SAT
  • Published multiple times in Science/Nature/Cell/PRL/JACS
  • Were award winners in a society like the ACS or the American Physical Society
  • Received a grant of $1M plus from the NIH
  • Are members of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Carry a public library card 
  • Are short, slightly pudgy middle-aged balding men with two dogs
  • Make beer at home
Some of these clubs are more prestigious than others.  (Note, I am a member of two of the clubs noted above.)  Scientists generally try to join the clubs that are the most exclusive.  In other words, they want to be members of groups that exclude the most number of other people, so that they look good in comparison.  (Side note: Some science fields don't like whistleblowers, too.  They may not be seen as playing well with others within those clubs.)

So, what does this all have to do with Open Access?

Scientists like the clubs that are prestigious and are exclusive.  Some scientists like the fact that only relevant subscribers can read their articles in toll-access journals.   If you work for a rich institution that can afford a subscription to a journal like Tetrahedron Letters ($16,773 list price for an annual subscription, or if you or your institution can afford to buy articles as needed), then you must be at a place deemed good enough to read it.  These scientists may not even post green OA versions of their articles, even though the publisher allows it.

Administrators may use value judgments to say that if you published in a 4 star journal, then your work must be good because it is difficult to get articles accepted by that journal.  Hence, you may look good simply because you are a member of that particular club.  If you have great articles that are not published in four star journals, you may have a much harder time getting your work noticed by the administrators.  However, it has been shown that simply having an article in a prestigious journal (with a high impact factor) does not mean that any specific accepted article is any good. 

Some Open Access publishing sources are trying to break down this exclusivity mindset and thought process.  Journals like PLOS ONE have a different standard of acceptance. Even with the different standard, the journal still rejects about 30% of incoming papers.  Some scientists see this as a lower standard, and hence they may think that all of the articles in PLOS ONE must be of low quality.  Of course, that is not true. (Note: if you care, PLOS ONE has an impact factor of about 4.0 which is pretty good overall.)

Scientists are trying to figure out different ways to measure quality research, but the impact factor will probably used as a proxy for article quality for many years to come, partially because people may not know about alternative metrics.

PLOS ONE is just one example.  Most Open Access journals are trying to break the mold and change the mindset of some scientists and publishers who still want to limit access to scientific research to the exclusive members of certain clubs and groups.  Will you help me change the system?


Anonymous said...

Generally an informative post, but I find statements such as the following a distraction:

"Scientists generally try to join the clubs that are the most exclusive. ... they want to be members of groups that exclude the most number of other people, so that they look good in comparison. ...
Scientists like the clubs that are prestigious and are exclusive ..."

I think the vanity you attribute to their motivation is pejorative without cause. Some scientists need the exclusive membership (publishing in a prestigious journal) to get grant funding to do research. It's part of the world they, and we, all live in.

Denigrating them on a personal level is unfounded or at least unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

I straddle both worlds and have found librarians to be no less clique-ish or clubby (with far fewer bona fides and credentials) as those whom you denigrate here. The difference is their pretensions of gentility and professed egalitarianism. Their strident push for OA is manifestation of their ideological commitment to the most base notions of collectivism. They own nothing and produce little - which is why they don't mind giving the store away. Primarily plucked from the arts & humanities, these bleeding hearts seek -for the most part- a safe place to squat until retirement. It has been my experience that residing deep within their own "professional" associations and memberships is an abiding hatred, fear, envy, and ignorance of the pure maths and sciences and practitioners - which is reflected in their library programming, services, subject unit mergers, and collection development allotments and allocations.

Joseph Kraus said...

I was not trying to denigrate scientists. I love science and I have a huge amount of respect for most scientists. I was just trying to think of a way that would describe the behavior of some scientists who do not support Open Access as much as I think they should support it. For the straddle anonymous, oh, I know that librarians can be very clubby and cliquish too. I don't remember saying that librarians are less clubby than scientists. When you say "They own nothing and produce little" I assume you are referring to librarians. I know of plenty of librarians who produce a lot of great work. This store that they are giving away is what is known as sharing a love of information and knowledge and some skills towards life-long learning. If that is what librarians are giving away, that is fine with me. These bleeding hearts are people with hearts who care about readers, researchers and library patrons.

Joseph Kraus said...

I would like to add that I do not fault scientists for being encouraged for following social rules to get ahead in the science game. All of the clubs listed in the bullet points are fine clubs to belong to. If you read me correctly, you could tell that I am critical of bean counting administrators (some of whom may also be scientists) who want to evaluate other scientists based solely on the number of articles a scientist has published in Science/Nature/Cell/PRL/JACS. They are not evaluating research based on the quality of individual articles. I also celebrate other administrators at institutions like the NIH, Wellcome trust, RCUK, Harvard, U of Kansas, U of Oregon, etc. who are encouraging researchers to publish in OA sources (both green and gold OA) because it is better for society at large. Those are the social policies that encourage more sharing of research, and those are policies that I would like to see instituted in more and more places.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure who the straddling anonymous is, but I'll bite with my experience as someone who is currently a "science librarian" after a long faculty career in a scientific discipline. My journey to librarianship was unique, but the primary reason was the ability to cross some of those boundaries and to collaborate with scientists in different "clubs".

I agree with "straddler" that academic librarians (only ones I know) can be very clubbish and that many of them do not have the training (or desire) to do rigorous scientific research. This is frustrating to me because done right, librarianship has so much to offer to all the "real scientists" out there. It has taken years to get faculty on my campus to realize that I actually understand them, know what pressures they are under, know how to do math, etc. The trouble now is that almost daily I have to decline an invitation to collaborate on a publication because there is only one of me. If more librarians would focus on helping people use information rather than just find it we'd all benefit.

While I think that open access is a great idea, it is much like the idea of lower taxes for everybody. If nobody pays taxes, who is going to keep the sewer system going? Who is going to pay for the datacenter, servers and bandwidth? Who is going to pay for all the publication activities (not my area, but I know it isn't magic)? Do I think that some publishers are making a huge profit? Yes. Do I think that the cost should be shouldered by the author of a paper? No. I don't have an answer, but I don't think it is a top priority issue.

In regard to this post I think that the push in the sciences that could be led by librarians and would have the greatest good is getting out of their own club and trying to cross pollinate between the other clubs. I'm constantly amazed that I will find two faculty members on my own campus doing almost the same thing and I'm the one who puts them together. The library isn't the physical center of campus anymore, but rather than focusing so much on Open Access because you think it is a grand principle we should focus on what our faculty and students need. The most successful librarians I see are making a difference by being involved in scientific professional organizations - not by being involved in ALA. By keeping their eyes open and having an open mind so that they could put someone in education who is working in Africa together with someone in geology and geography and start a community mapping program which eventually grows to include people from the business school helping women start small businesses and biology faculty helping promulgate policy for sustainable use of local resources. Or we could focus on making sure they could read a scientific paper about it (if they ever get Internet and enough to eat so they can relax long enough to do some reading ...).

Joseph Kraus said...

Thanks anonymous "science librarian". Very good comments. You note that "rather than focusing so much on Open Access because you think it is a grand principle we should focus on what our faculty and students need." I agree. Our students and faculty need greater access to the literature, and with so much locked up behind paywalls, we should work towards OA. The library simply can't pay or subscribe to everything (even Harvard). I'd also like the researchers to stop giving away their research to commercial publishers that then make large profits from the free labor. Please take a look at the book, Open Access from Peter Suber. This bargain between researchers and publishers was needed for publishing the explosion of knowledge in the 50s through the 1980s, but it isn't needed now. You also noted "Or we could focus on making sure they could read a scientific paper." How could I not agree to the needs for greater education, but people need to be able to access the scientific literature first before they can learn to read it. Reading an NYTimes article about some new research without being able to examine the full text does not do the person much good.

Joseph Kraus said...

Here is another post that demonstrates the insidious nature of the bean counting administrators.