The Sciences

The System of Scholarly Publishing Is Broken. How Can We Fix It?

If we diversify our thinking away from the superficial field of journals and articles, and instead focus on the power of networked technologies, we can see all sorts of innovative models for scholarly communication.

The world of scholarly communication is broken. Giant, corporate publishers with racketeering business practices and profit margins that exceed Apple’s treat life-saving research as a private commodity to be sold at exorbitant profits. Only around 25% of the global corpus of research knowledge is ‘open access’, or accessible to the public for free and without subscription, which is a real impediment to resolving major problems, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Recently, Springer Nature, one of the largest academic publishers in the world, had to withdraw its European stock market floatation due to a lack of interest. This announcement came just days after Couperin, a French consortium, cancelled its subscriptions to Springer Nature journals, after Swedish and German universities cancelled their Elsevier subscriptions to no ill effect, besides replenished library budgets. At the same time, Elsevier has sued Sci-Hub, a website that provides free, easy access to 67 million research articles. All evidence of a broken system.

The European Commission is currently letting publishers bid for the development of an EU-wide open-access scholarly publishing platform. But is the idea for this platform too short-sighted? What the Commission is doing is essentially finding new ways of channelling public funds into private hands. At the same time, due to the scale of the operation, it prevents more innovative services from getting a foothold into the publishing world. This is happening at the same time as these mega-publishers are beginning to control the entire research workflow – from ideation to evaluation. Researchers will become the provider, the product, and the consumer.

Public open-access infrastructure

A global community to coordinate and regain control – to develop a public open-access infrastructure – of research and scholarly communication for the public good is long overdue. The issues of governance and ownership of public research have never been clearer. Another isolated platform will simply replicate the problems of the current journal-based system, including the ‘publish or perish’ mentality that perverts the research process, and the anachronistic evaluation system based on corporate brands.

Researchers are still forced to write ‘papers’ for these journals, a communication format designed in the 17th century. Now, in a world where the power of web-based social networks is revolutionising almost every other industry, researchers need to take back control.

The European Commission has called for full, immediate open access to all scientific publications by 2020, something often mocked for being unrealistic, and that current growth trends suggest we will fail to achieve. But it is unrealistic only if one focuses on the narrow view of the current system.

If we diversify our thinking away from the superficial field of journals and articles, and instead focus on the power of networked technologies, we can see all sorts of innovative models for scholarly communication. One ideal, based on existing services, would be something much more granular and continuous, with communication and peer review as layered, collaborative processes: envisage a hosting service such as GitHub combined with Wikipedia combined with a Q&A site such as Stack Exchange. Imagine using version control to track the process of research in real time. Peer review becomes a community-governed process, where the quality of engagement becomes the hallmark of individual reputations. Governance structures can be mediated through community elections. Critically, all research outputs can be published and credited: videos, code, visualisations, text, data, things we haven’t even thought of yet. Best of all, a system of fully open communication and collaboration, with not an ‘impact factor’ (a paper’s average number of citations, used to rate journals) in sight.

Three elements to be harmonised

Such a system of scholarly communication requires the harmonising of three key elements: quality control and moderation, certification and reputation, and incentives for engagement. For example, it would be easy to have a quality-control process in which instead of the closed and secretive process of peer review, self-organised and unrestricted communities collaborate together for research to attain verification and validation. The recklessly used impact factor can be replaced by a reward system that altruistically recognises the quality of engagement as defined by how content is digested by a community, which itself can be used to unlock new abilities within such a system. The beauty is that the incentive for researchers switches from publishing in journal X to engaging in a manner that is of most value to their community. By coupling such activities with academic records and profiles, research assessment bodies can begin to recognise the immense value this has over current methods of evaluation, including its simplicity.

Join The Discussion