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A Retraction Of Sorts


In October 2012 I posted a piece entitled “The Tyranny of Evil Academe” as a response to another blog written by Sarah Kendzior.  I strongly disagreed with much of what Miss Kendzior had written and I still do.  However, re-reading some of my own words in light of Aaron Swartz’s tragic death has left me feeling queasy.  Certainly anything I’m feeling pales in comparison to those who actually knew and cared for Aaron.  My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and loved ones.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

With Aaron’s suicide this month I was exposed to more of the facts surrounding the “JSTOR Incident.”  Some of the information which I’d accepted as truth now must be called into question.  I now regret the zeal with which I labelled his acts as “criminal.”  I still have many questions about certain details of the case and hope to find factual answers which will allow me to better form my opinion.

For now, I’m leaving my previous blog post as is, because I feel it’d be wrong for me to edit or remove them.  They were my words, and I’m responsible for them.  I leave them as a reminder, to myself and others, that before we slap a label on someone or something; before we get caught up in the heat of the moment, we should probably step back and whenever possible make sure we have all the facts.  I thought I did.  I was wrong.

In my post I’d questioned those who seemed to be making Aaron “out to be some kind of victim or martyr.”  Just a few short months later, here we are.  I wish that he was still here for those who loved him, and for those (like myself) who did not even have a chance to know him.

The Tyranny of Evil Academe


ENOUGH.

A recent blog post entitled “Academic paywalls mean publish and perish” was so filled with shortsightedness and misinformation that I was shaking my head while reading both the blog and many of the comments which followed.

Let’s get a few things straight:

Watch out Sheriff of JSTORingham!

1. Aaron Swartz:  The blog begins by setting up Aaron Swartz as a misunderstood do-gooder, a Robin Hood of the research community who battles black hearted villains such as…GASP….the tyrannical JSTOR.

Complete and utter hogwash.

What Mr. Swartz is alleged to have done was a criminal act.  Period.  He knew it as he (allegedly) committed the act or else why use a fake name to log in to MIT’s network (Gary Host or “GHost”…very mysterious 007 stuff)? Why (allegedly) hide your face from security cameras behind a bike helmet as you enter the facility?  What do you have to hide?  Anyone attempting to excuse his actions because you think there is some kind of moral high ground is using a cheap argument and only ends up looking foolish.  You may not like that there are restrictions in place; you may feel that JSTOR and their publishing partners price articles too highly; you may be the biggest open access advocate in the world. None of that matters.

Let me share with you something any small child knows:

STEALING IS WRONG.  BREAKING THE LAW IS NOT OK.

Hey, I think my cable TV bill is too high and I can’t wait for the DVD release, but I REALLY need to watch Game of Thrones NOW, so I’ll steal cable or find a way to view a pirated copy.

The price of gas is unfair and it’s really all a massive conspiracy run by the big oil companies, so I’ll siphon some gas from the tank of a car in a parking lot.

Some of my tax dollars subsidize farmers, so I’ll just walk out of the supermarket without paying for these vegetables.

Wait, I can’t do any of that?  REALLY?! <—- Sarcasm.

Let’s not make Mr. Swartz out to be some kind of victim or martyr here.

If you feel there is a problem with current access to scholarly material there are more constructive, ethical and legal ways to do something about it.  This is why I have a great deal of respect for individuals behind the open access movement such as Peter Binfield, Harold Varmus, and Vitek Tracz.   Others such as Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar who push for the adoption of altmetrics and more openness in scholarly publishing also fall into this category for me.  Victor Henning of Mendeley and others who have developed new tools that allow researchers to work more efficiently make the grade as well.

Guess what?  I don’t agree with or support everything all of those I’ve mentioned are proponents of

but I respect them.

Their beliefs are so strong that they’ve decided to do something (LEGALLY) to change the system.  They’ve invested a great deal of their own time and resources to make their dream a reality.  They’ve put their money where their mouth is.  Talked the talk, walked the walk.  Insert other appropriate cliches here.  Aaron Swartz was no stranger to this approach himself as he started the nonprofit group DemandProgress.  Actions such as those allegedly committed by Aaron Swartz in the JSTOR incident are not only criminal and unethical, but they are an insult to those I’ve listed and anyone else who’ve put their necks on the line and play by the rules.  Shame on anyone who makes excuses for this wannabe “Robin Hood” and his band of “Merry Men.”

2. ‘Publish and perish’ The author of Academic paywalls mean publish and perish (Sarah Kendzior) states:

“If I wanted to download my articles, I would have to pay $183.”

Really?  You mean you don’t have copies OF YOUR OWN PAPERS?

A couple of points on this:

For arguments sake let’s say somehow you’ve lost all copies of your own work.  A computer virus.  A crashed hard drive.  Whatever.  Many publishers will give authors copies of their own published material as long as it is not being used for commercial purposes (more on this in a future post).  I suspect if Miss Kendizor really needed copies of her own articles she need only ask the publisher. Or, God forbid, go to the library.

Unless…the point is that the author is looking for something they don’t posses.  That would be the final published version of the article.  And therein lies the rub…this acknowledges that there’s a difference between what the author wrote and what they want in return. The publisher has performed some sort of service, but the author or reader are not willing to pay for that.

Next, it seems that Kendizor has submitted to a journal that she doesn’t have access to.  Why? If you feel this strongly why not submit to an OA journal? Who is forcing you to send your manuscript somewhere you don’t want to?  I’ll give you the answer in just a bit.  Here’s a clue: it’s not the publisher. Researchers have more choices today.  Use those choices, create change via your actions, not with blog posts which offer little in the way of constructive, real-world application.

Another area Miss Kendzior (and many of those who’ve commented on her blog) seem really upset about is the fact that the material they’d like access to is not (easily) freely available, not only to them, but to those who are in developing or economically challenged countries.  I think this is what she means by “boundaries of which are determined by institutional affiliation and personal wealth.”

Conveniently forgotten from this argument is the fact that many (most?) of the “nefarious” traditional publishers and organizations such as JSTOR already assist in this regard by participating in developing nations programs such as that offered by Highwire (http://highwire.stanford.edu/lists/devecon.dtl).  There are no hoops to jump through to get to the content offered by the publishers.  If you’re visiting the journal from one of these countries you have free access.  No need to create an account, log in, or sign anything in blood.  Read, download, and cite whatever you’d like.  I’m confident that other publishing platforms offer similar programs, but am not positive as I do not use their services.  I’ve reached out to some to confirm this is the case.  Perhaps some connected to these other providers may care to comment.

Your typical traditional, scholarly publisher?

So, this leaves us with what the blog posts describes as the “Tyranny of academic publishers.” BWAHAHAHA! (Maniacal laugh my own)

Kendzior outlines how Academe has functioned for some time now: “New professors are awarded tenure based on their publication output, but not on the impact of their research on the world…”

And somehow publishers are to blame for this because..?

Was it publishers who decided that tenure, promotions, grants and so on would be awarded based on publication output?  Were publishers those who determined the best way to to judge the quality of a journal was by using Impact Factor?  While journal subscription prices in some fields began to skyrocket, did publisher sales reps storm the libraries and force librarians to subscribe?  Did publishers bring to life this system and then look to the sky with wild eyes and proclaim “IT’S ALIVE!”

The answer to all of these questions is “NO.”  Those scholars and academics who have lit their torches and joined the angry mob seeking to drive out the monster in their midst would do well to stop and look in the mirror first.  To quote cartoonist  Walt Kelly “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Usually critics of traditional publishers focus on exorbitant pricing models that result in outrageous profit, but Kendzior states that “the reason for the high price has nothing to do with making money.”  Depicting organizations like JSTOR or others and scholarly publishers in general as the “Evil Empire” only out to “maintain the barrier between academia and the outside world” (Kendzior’s words) via a pricing conspiracy is certainly a…unique take on things.

I’m sick and tired of all academic publishers being painted with the same brush.  I’ve had it with the hyperbole and rhetoric from both sides of the argument.

This is not to say that I agree with the current system.  I have many problems with it myself.  On the other hand I don’t think it’s as simplistic as many believe it to be.  Scholarly publishing is complicated.  There are many players involved. Even those who are trying to drive change will need to find profit somewhere.  But let’s place blame for certain matters where it belongs.  Academics have given this power to publishers and if so desired they have the power to take it away.  Many organizations, tenure committees, and panels are beginning to change their evaluation process.  Librarians are starting to say “no” to outrageous subscription prices.  These are steps in the right direction.

But be careful what you wish for.

You may find that in the end those who are best equipped to deliver the research produced by the academic community most efficiently are those you’re vilifying.  But that is a subject for a future post.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy of Management.

Chumbawamba says Enough is Enough

An Interview with Kent Anderson, CEO/Publisher for the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery


This is the third in my series of interviews inspired by the 2012 SSP session “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” If you’d like to learn more about why I’ve conducted these interviews you should read my previous conversation with Tom Reller of Elsevier and David Crotty of Oxford University Press. All interviewees were asked the same questions.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson
CEO/Publisher at The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery & current SSP President-elect.

Our next STM professional is Kent Anderson, Editor-In-Chief of SSP’s “Scholarly Kitchen” blog, and the current SSP President-elect. Kent is a veteran of the scholarly publishing industry who received the SSP’s Distinguished Service Award in 2011, the organization’s highest honor. Kent has a BA in English and an MBA. He is currently CEO/Publisher for the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. Prior to this, he worked in the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Publishing Division in Product Development and International Business and as Publishing Director for the New England Journal of Medicine. He’s been a publisher, managing editor, copy editor, graphic designer, typesetter, editor, and author. He’s worked at the American Academy of Pediatrics, Medical Economics, and 3M.

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ADAM ETKIN: Let’s start with the subject of Open Access vs. traditional publishing models. There was a lot of buzz recently due to Nature’s editor-in-chief Philip Campbell stating that open access to research “is inevitable.” However he also said:

“You hear it said that the public has paid for it, the public should have access to it for free,” said Campbell. “At that point, I draw back and say, what do you mean by ‘it’? You mean something that has got quality in it that has been selected and copy-edited. Somebody has got to do all that stuff, so the ‘it’ you want usually has involved somebody acting like a publisher to make it useable and comprehensible.”

Who, other than existing publishers, could or should “act like a publisher?” What are the pros/cons of some alternate “publisher” or self-publishers taking on this role?

KENT ANDERSON: I think Campbell is being coy here. Basically, he’s saying that what people want is what publishers provide. I think he’s right. He’s also demarcating the difference between the research report and the finished, peer-reviewed, edited, formatted, and published paper. There are major differences between the two, as far as both quality and relevance.

ADAM ETKIN: Continuing on this topic:

“If gold open access became the norm for the primary literature, Campbell said that the cost per article could be in excess of $10,000 to publish in highly selective journals such as Nature, Cell or Science.”

I think that it seems a safe assumption that no author or funding agency will be willing to pay publishing fees of $10k (or even $4-$5k) per article. In order to drive this fee down OA publishers such as PLoS have adopted a peer review “light” system and publish 65-70% of articles submitted to them. What is your opinion of this model?

KENT ANDERSON: PLoS has found a new niche with PLoS ONE, and I think it’s truly a new niche – the “light” peer-review is just for methodological review (did you do what you said you would?), and not for interest or novelty. This has led to an incredibly high acceptance rate as well as a robust financial model, one that may generate a surplus of PLoS in excess of the oft-criticized Elsevier 35% margin. I personally wonder if the PLoS ONE model is even competitive with traditional journals. With 12,000+ articles being published, you’d expect submissions to other journals to fall, but this hasn’t been the case. Most journals are seeing more submissions. Where are they coming from? I think PLoS ONE is publishing the equivalent of “B-sides,” for those of us who remember 45’s – songs that didn’t quite work but for which you still want some credit.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you think there is a business model where journals could maintain a selective acceptance rate (using more rigid peer review) which allows for the publication of the top research in the field while at the same time results in author fees which are reasonable?

KENT ANDERSON: That business model exists. It’s a subscription model with fees for authors who want special services, like more color than is usually allowed or extra pages. As for author fees paying the entire freight, I think Campbell is 2-3x low in his estimate of the full cost of publishing in a selective journal, because you also have to factor in the costs of all those rejections and a good amount of overhead. I’ve seen a per-article rate in a highly prestigious journal of $25-35K per article being batted around in scenario planning. I think that’s more like it. I personally think a selective acceptance rate is a reader-oriented stance, so if you start taking money from authors, you’re going to drift into becoming much more author-oriented, and that will make you want to please them, which will make it tempting to loosen your standards, especially if it increases your revenues.

ADAM ETKIN: The traditional peer review system seems to constantly be criticized, yet at the same time studies and surveys show the large majority of researchers view it as essential to any publication system. Do you agree with the criticism? How would you improve the current system?

KENT ANDERSON: I think peer-review always needs to be examined for flaws. People get lazy, systems get sloppy, standards slip. The same things can happen to a lab, a government agency, or a university. We all need to keep pushing to make things better. Peer-review has a limited role, but a vital role. It is not the be-all and end-all for the best journals, who use editorial judgment to sort out reviews and match their content to their audience. Actually, OA publishers who only rely on peer-review are doing less for their readers, which nobody seems to be cottoning to.

ADAM ETKIN: Another target of much criticism is Impact Factor. Do you foresee a time when IF is less important? If so, how soon do you think this might be the case?

KENT ANDERSON: The impact factor should be made less important, but I don’t see it leaving the stage any time soon. Thoughtful administrators know it’s only a data point, not the absolute measure of productivity or quality for tenure, grant, or faculty decisions. It needs to be kept in perspective. But since all the so-called new measure tend to mimic the effect of the impact factor, I’m not sure we’re seeing much improvement. Lots of heat, not a lot of light.

ADAM ETKIN: Related to IF, Academia has created a culture where in order for researchers to gain tenure, promotions, grants etc. they must publish in high IF journals. Do you see this changing any time soon?

KENT ANDERSON: See prior answer.

ADAM ETKIN: How important do you see social media measurements such as altmetrics being in the future? Are you concerned that such measurements have the potential to be “gamed” by purchasing tweets, likes and so on. How might those concerns be addressed?

KENT ANDERSON: I have a low opinion of alt-metrics. I think they measure broadcast, not receipt, and definitely not impact.

ADAM ETKIN: What are the services that scholarly publishers offer that are the most valuable? Are there services these publishers provide which are not easily replaceable due to cost, expertise, efficiency or other reasons?

Re-use hotel towels

“This is like a hotel asking me to reuse towels to save the environment.”

KENT ANDERSON: I think the traditional services scholarly publishers have offered have been very valuable to researchers and academics. Many people are picking away at these, and often in ways that are downright misleading. For instance, copyright registration and monitoring is a service publishers offer authors, usually at no charge. New publishers drop this service in many cases, claiming the copyright is better being kept by the author. This is like a hotel asking me to reuse towels to save the environment – that’s not why they’re really asking; they want to cut their laundry costs. An unregistered copyright is very hard to protect, and authors can’t and won’t monitor abuses. They’re too busy doing more productive things. But I think services include rejection (yes, finding the right journal is a service), organizing good peer review, providing free statistical review, providing editorial services, formatting articles, selecting their priority, and so forth. Editorial work is not to be undervalued. We’ve had a hard time finding good editorial people lately, because everyone thinks it’s easy so nobody’s training for it. Basically, my view is that if researchers want to do badly what publishers do well, and to spend their time doing those things instead of research, fine. But that seems like a very inefficient and poor use of time.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you have anything else to mention regarding the scholarly publishing industry and what publishers in this field are “good for?”

KENT ANDERSON: As I said above, the package of services is huge and clearly taken for granted. Branding. Let’s start there. Why do you work so hard on a great experiment? Because you want to be published in Nature or Cell or any other of the dozen top titles you might have in mind. Are publishers good magnets and motivators? Their journals are, and publishers take care of those products and brands. It’s really kind of ridiculous that we’re put on the defensive, especially by people who ultimately want to be publishers themselves, and often end up doing a moderately good or moderately bad job of it. There really is no alternative being offered except service reductions tied to price and prestige reductions – but no really different approach to vetting, editing, and publishing. Even things like arXiv.org haven’t changed the journals environment for physics. Journals are excellent quality and relevance signaling vehicles. To do these things, they have to create an audience, set a standard, and consistently execute to that standard for that audience. Is that good for something? Of course.

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So, what are publishers “good for?” As can be seen by the variety of responses given by each interviewee, they are good for quite a bit. Good publishers, regardless of whether they follow an open access or traditional model, act as curators or filters of quality for their academic community; they help researchers reach their target audience and in many ways act as a marketing team for authors; they oversee copy editing and quality control of graphics and tables for scientists; they protect copyright and invest in new technology will allows researchers to publish their work faster and increase the discoverability of their work. Perhaps most importantly, by providing and overseeing these services academic publishers allow researchers to do what they do best…..research.

What have the Publishers ever done for US?!

An Interview with David Crotty, Senior Editor with Oxford University Press


This is the second in my series of interviews inspired by the 2012 SSP session “Publishers! What Are They Good For?”  If you’d like to learn more about why I’ve conducted these interviews you should read my previous conversation with Tom Reller of Elsevier.  All interviewees were asked the same questions.

David Crotty

David Crotty, Senior Editor with Oxford University Press

Our next STM professional is David Crotty, Senior Editor with Oxford University Press, and panelist on the “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” session. David is a veteran of the scholarly publishing industry who currently oversees a suite of society-owned medical and life sciences journals. David has previously served as an Executive Editor with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, creating, acquiring, and editing new science books, creating and running new journals, and managing the Press’ online content. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did postdoctoral research at Caltech before moving from the bench to a science publishing house. As one of the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s “chefs” at The Scholarly Kitchen blog, David regularly writes about the intersection of technology and publishing

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ADAM ETKIN: Let’s start with the subject of Open Access vs. traditional publishing models.  There was a lot of buzz recently due to Nature’s editor-in-chief Philip Campbell stating that open access to research “is inevitable.” However he also said:

“You hear it said that the public has paid for it, the public should have access to it for free,” said Campbell. “At that point, I draw back and say, what do you mean by ‘it’? You mean something that has got quality in it that has been selected and copy-edited. Somebody has got to do all that stuff, so the ‘it’ you want usually has involved somebody acting like a publisher to make it useable and comprehensible.”

Who, other than existing publishers, could or should “act like a publisher?” What are the pros/cons of some alternate “publisher” or self-publishers taking on this role?

DAVID CROTTY: First, I think I disagree with Campbell that anything is “inevitable”. I think open access is highly desirable, and really the ideal way science should work. But the real world often raises its ugly head and makes things difficult. I think we’re in the midst of a great period of experimentation, and as is the nature of experiments, the outcome is unknown.

Atlantic Avenue Terminal Pavilion, Brooklyn, New York

Atlantic Avenue Terminal Pavilion, Brooklyn, New York
Source Flickr

He’s right though, that the argument that the public must have free access to anything paid for by taxpayers is a specious argument. The line of logic fails long before it gets to the point Campbell mentions. My taxes pay to build and maintain the NY City Subway system, yet I must pay for access. My taxes pay to fund research, yet the actual results of that research (not just the written reports of the results) are often locked away behind patent paywalls.

To answer your question though, I don’t think there needs to be a reinvention of the wheel. Most of the arguments in this sphere are about control: control of access to the material, control of copyright, editorial control, control of re-use, etc. If these are important factors for academics, then they already have the mechanism in place for achieving that control. There’s a functional system of university presses, not-for-profits and society publishers already in place that’s already owned and controlled by academia. Why not exercise that control to get better results, and why not support your own efforts, rather than continuing to work hard to benefit somebody else?

Commercial interests have different goals than the Academy, and it’s understandable that there seem to be more and more conflicts between those goals of commerce versus scholarship.  But I don’t think the answer lies in taking that taking that control away from one set of commercial interests and turning it over to another. In the end, they’re still looking to take money out of academia and put it in their shareholders’ pockets.

ADAM ETKIN: Continuing on this topic:

“If gold open access became the norm for the primary literature, Campbell said that the cost per article could be in excess of $10,000 to publish in highly selective journals such as Nature, Cell or Science.”

I think that it seems a safe assumption that no author or funding agency will be willing to pay publishing fees of $10k (or even $4-$5k) per article.  In order to drive this fee down OA publishers such as PLoS have adopted a peer review “light” system and publish 65-70% of articles submitted to them.  What is your opinion of this model? 

DAVID CROTTY: Why is that a safe assumption? Don’t Wellcome and HHMI already pay $5K for articles in Nature Communications? If I’m a researcher and I have the cash on hand, then $10K to publish a paper in Nature is a superb investment. I will likely see much more back from that paper in terms of further funding and career advancement than the initial $10K investment. The problem though, for most researchers, is that funds are so tight that only the select few have a spare $10K on hand. That results in a system where the rich get richer.

As far as the PLoS ONE “light” peer review (and I hesitate to call it that because that term will sound pejorative to many—I’m still searching for a better descriptive word), I think there are benefits and drawbacks that it presents. The key benefit is speed. If the journal accepts 70% of submissions, then if you submit something reasonable, you know it’s going to get in, and that you aren’t going to have to go through multiple rounds of peer review and rewrites. This, I’d be willing to bet, much more than open access, is likely the driving force for many of PLoS ONE’s submissions.

The downside is that it puts more work on the reader by removing a filtering mechanism. Researchers are already overburdened, and asking them to do more work makes things even worse. There’s a balance that the research community must decide for itself. Is the filtering offered by the journal system of enough value that it’s worth paying for? Or is this activity something where we’d rather keep the money and instead spend extra time digging through a less-filtered literature? So far, given the continued growing level of submission to traditional journals, it appears the balance remains on the side of spending money to save time.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you think there is a business model where journals could maintain a selective acceptance rate (using more rigid peer review) which allows for the publication of the top research in the field while at the same time results in author fees which are reasonable?

DAVID CROTTY: It’s already possible in some fields. Nucleic Acids Research, as one example, has an impact factor around 8 and a high rejection rate. The author fee is $3K, which so far has proven acceptable to the research community. But that’s also a community that is well-funded, and the journal publishes a much higher number of papers than many others, despite its selectivity. So it’s hard to see that translating to smaller niche journals.

There are potential ways around it though. High-end journals could use submission fees to help cover the cost of rejection (which would also help by lowering the number of submissions). eLife is exploring a model where those costs are covered by a funding agency, where the journal isn’t necessarily expected to break even. Or one could follow the path being explored by F1000 Research, where author fees are paid before peer review takes place, thus eliminating the cost of rejection altogether.

ADAM ETKIN: The traditional peer review system seems to constantly be criticized, yet at the same time studies and surveys show the large majority of researchers view it as essential to any publication system.  Do you agree with the criticism? How would you improve the current system?

DAVID CROTTY: I think much of the criticism is overblown, and often due to a misunderstanding of what peer review is supposed to achieve. People have done studies trying to quantitatively measure what is essentially a qualitative process.

I do think the system could be improved though, particularly in terms of speed and transparency.

ADAM ETKIN: Another target of much criticism is Impact Factor.  Do you foresee a time when IF is less important? If so, how soon do you think this might be the case?

DAVID CROTTY: That’s entirely up to the research community. I don’t know anyone (aside from Thomson-Reuters) who loves the Impact Factor. Publishers use it (and exploit it in some ways) because that’s what the research community has told us is important and where we should focus. If the research community chooses some other metric (or metrics) to value instead, publishers will follow.

It’s hard to see this happening in the short term, as the IF is so deeply ingrained in the system. Administrators seem particularly happy with a simple number they can use to rank performance, rather than trying to put together a nuanced picture of what a researcher’s work means. To me the ideal solution will be a panel of metrics, weighted accordingly to balance each individual metric’s weaknesses. You’d still end up with one number that would satisfy administrators, but it would be a more meaningful number. The Impact Factor is a reasonable way to measure a journal, but a poor measurement of the quality of an individual scientist’s work.

ADAM ETKIN: Related to IF, Academia has created a culture where in order for researchers to gain tenure, promotions, grants etc. they must publish in high IF journals.  Do you see this changing any time soon?

DAVID CROTTY: See the answer above. If anything, funding is getting tighter, jobs are getting fewer and farther between. A colleague at a major research institution tells me they get a minimum of 400 qualified applications every time they advertise a tenure track position. There’s a glut of talented researchers and nowhere to put them and no way to fund them. So I see competition and pressure increasing rather than decreasing. I would love to see better, more meaningful filtering systems in place than the Impact Factor, but we are likely going to see more hurdles that researchers must clear to continue their careers rather than fewer.

ADAM ETKIN: How important do you see social media measurements such as altmetrics being in the future? Are you concerned that such measurements have the potential to be “gamed” by purchasing tweets, likes and so on.  How might those concerns be addressed?

DAVID CROTTY: Altmetrics go well beyond just social metrics and there are many promising avenues currently being explored. The problem with social metrics is that they are social. They measure things like popularity and one’s ability to network. Those are interesting things to look at, but they aren’t necessarily a proxy for quality or impact.

And yes, they do present an easier path to gaming, something we’re likely to see more and more of given the increased competition for limited jobs and funding. Citation has its problems, but the barrier to gaming (publishing a new paper that cites the old paper) is much higher than that for social metrics (clicking a mouse).

ADAM ETKIN: What are the services that scholarly publishers offer that are the most valuable?  Are there services these publishers provide which are not easily replaceable due to cost, expertise, efficiency or other reasons?

DAVID CROTTY: There are far more than most people realize, but I’ll start with three key services: time saving, neutrality and driving new technology.

Time saving:

Technology has reached a point where researchers can do for themselves much of what a journal publisher offers. The question is why they would want to spend their valuable time doing such mundane work. Researchers, scientists in particular, do an enormous amount of outsourcing. Their job is discovery, doing experiments, learning new things. As such, they pay someone to wash the test tubes in the lab rather than doing it themselves, because that’s time and effort taken away from experimentation.

Many labs buy pre-mixed solutions that they could spend the time to make from scratch at a lower cost, and much of biology is dominated by kits, prefabricated sets of reagents for performing a particular assay, again, faster, but much more expensive than making everything yourself.  Labs farm out common activities like sequencing DNA, making constructs, breeding flies, or making transgenic mice. This is all done so researcher time can be concentrated on the cutting edge of garnering new knowledge.

So in an era where researchers are so time-pressed that they only do the experiments that they can’t hire someone else to do, does it make any sense to ask them to sacrifice an enormous amount of their time doing the job of publishers, something just as easily outsourced? Publishers provide a set of necessary services for the communication of results. These are often tedious and time-consuming services, and like the lab’s dishwasher, the sequencing center, or even the campus plumber, we are paid to do the necessary things in order to free up a researcher’s time to do research.

Neutrality:

If you are self-publishing, you are axiomatically self-promoting. And that’s not credible in the scholarly realm. Your claims must be reviewed by others, what you say about your work is suspect. Journals serve as that neutral third party, gathering expert opinions on the validity of your claims and passing final judgment.  This process can’t be done by the author themselves, simply because no one trusts anyone else—that’s the nature of science. Given the enormous stakes, the scarcity of funding and careers, a system without neutral oversight would rapidly fall prey to manipulation and gaming.

New Technologies:

The research community constantly demands new tools for interacting with the literature. But these tools come at a cost, both in terms of funding and in effort. Publishers are investing millions of dollars every year in semantic technologies, in building API’s and writing and rewriting metadata to meet new standards for new ways of use. Think of something like the Nature Network, a failed but fascinating experiment into social networking and science.  Elsevier is doing some really interesting things with their SciVerse developer network as another example. There seems to be a disconnect between those complaining about journal profits and those demanding new experiments and new technologies from publishers. Those profits are how those experiments get done and those technologies get built.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you have anything else to mention regarding the scholarly publishing industry and what publishers in this field are “good for?”

DAVID CROTTY: Publishing is a service industry. We’re good for whatever you need. Times change, technology changes, and the needs of researchers continue to change as well. Publishers will change the services offered to better match those needs. That may mean changing our peer review process or the way the literature is accessed. So be it.  The publisher that succeeds is the publisher that best meets the needs of the researcher.

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In the coming weeks I’ll continue this series of interviews with members of the STM publishing community. I look forward to any comments you may have.

Something More From Oxford University Press (kinda). The Oxford Comma.

An Interview with Tom Reller, Vice President, Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier


This did NOT occur at SSP 2012.

At the 2012 Annual Society for Scholarly Publishing meeting, one session garnered much pre and post-meeting buzz.  “Publishers! What Are They Good For?” was not only covering topics of great interest such as business models, metrics, and disruption within the scholarly publishing industry, but the panel (not to mention some audience members) was comprised of individuals who have been among those at opposite ends of an often heated debate over how to best serve the scholarly community.  The potential for hyperbole, rhetoric, table flipping and chair throwing seemed ripe.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your tastes) what transpired was a thought provoking, respectful, intelligent discussion.  As one ninety minute session allowed the participants to only scratch the surface of the topics discussed, I wanted to explore several of the ideas mentioned during the session further.  To do so I reached out to various members of the STM publishing community to ask some questions.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that more agreed to be interviewed than I anticipated, so what follows is the first in a series of interviews.  All interviewees were asked the same questions.

Much of the discussion centered on the Open Access movement in scholarly publishing, the peer review system, as well as the various methods by which researchers and publications are measured.  Many participants at the session came away feeling that while academic publishing will evolve, publishers will still have an important role to fill in serving the research community.  Those supporting the Open Access model have done a far better job of communicating their message than traditional publishers.  Publishers need to educate the community on the value they add to the process in order to correct some misconceptions and improve awareness.  I approached all those interviewed with this in mind and was not surprised to find they all had some valuable insight and thoughts on the matter.

Tom Reller, VP, Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier

First up is Tom Reller, Vice President, Global Corporate Relations at Elsevier. Tom is a veteran of the scholarly publishing industry who as Elsevier’s primary media spokesman, is responsible for the company’s relationships with media, analysts and other publishing and health-related communities. Tom also collaborates with many organizations to promote Elsevier’s contributions to Health and Science. These include partnerships developed through the Elsevier Foundation, where he’s responsible for running programs benefiting the global nurse faculty profession. He holds an MA in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University and a BA in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland.

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ADAM ETKIN: Let’s start with the subject of Open Access vs. traditional publishing models.  There was a lot of buzz recently due to Nature’s editor-in-chief Philip Campbell stating that open access to research “is inevitable.” However he also said:

“You hear it said that the public has paid for it, the public should have access to it for free,” said Campbell. “At that point, I draw back and say, what do you mean by ‘it’? You mean something that has got quality in it that has been selected and copy-edited. Somebody has got to do all that stuff, so the ‘it’ you want usually has involved somebody acting like a publisher to make it useable and comprehensible.”

Who, other than existing publishers, could or should “act like a publisher?” What are the pros/cons of some alternate “publisher” or self-publishers taking on this role?

TOM RELLER: For starters, just to be technically accurate, Philip said ‘in the long run,’ and was discussing a gradual evolution to more open access publishing.

Keep in mind that despite the attention, author-funded articles make up a small percentage of the scientific literature.  It’s growing quickly, but from a small base.  That’s mainly for the reason you note in your next question, which is while everyone thinks OA is a great idea, once you get past the principle, the reality is that costs still exist.  There’s an affordability gap at present whether one pays on the author side or the reader side because information budgets are not keeping pace with the increase in global research and development investment.  That’s $1.2 trillion, and grows at around 4% per year.

To your question, it largely depends on which field you’re talking about, which is a rather lost aspect of the OA debate. Not all science is the same. It’s not funded the same, conducted the same, or published the same. In some fields, like high energy physics, it can be argued that because much of the science is collaborative in nature, the number of co-authors acts as a process of peer review itself. The research develops in stages, and is shared throughout so by the time the final article is ready for submission, there is less value a publisher adds to it. Here, publishing overlay services or something like arXiv may make sense. I’d add though that this is certainly not a proven model yet in physics, and even in high energy journals which are 100% available on the arXiv, there’s still a demand to publish in peer reviewed journal.

In most other fields, I don’t know of any one other mechanism providing the level of filtration, quality and other assurances that publishers provide. And that doesn’t even get into dissemination, which is vastly more complex than just being available on the internet.  So the cons to any other models are risk to the core attributes of science itself.  It stops being science, and just opinion or other forms of unverified research, and it’s not nearly as accessible in actual researcher workflows.

ADAM ETKIN: Continuing on this topic:

“If gold open access became the norm for the primary literature, Campbell said that the cost per article could be in excess of $10,000 to publish in highly selective journals such as Nature, Cell or Science.”

I think that it seems a safe assumption that no author or funding agency will be willing to pay publishing fees of $10k (or even $4-$5k) per article.  In order to drive this fee down OA publishers such as PLoS have adopted a peer review “light” system and publish 65-70% of articles submitted to them.  What is your opinion of this model? 

TOM RELLER: In the end the market will decide what the price will be.  But the key is that maintaining the quality of the scholarly communication system is important to researchers, funders and publishers and other stakeholders too.  It’s pretty important to us all that there should not be a race to the bottom on price or quality.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you think there is a business model where journals could maintain a selective acceptance rate (using more rigid peer review) which allows for the publication of the top research in the field while at the same time results in author fees which are reasonable?

TOM RELLER: As I said in response to the last question, the market will decide.  But what has me concerned as it pertains to author-pays journals, is that some publishers will come up with arbitrary or artificial acceptance rates that are based upon economics, and not peer review or quality filtration.  The beauty of the reader pays model, particularly in an online era, is that journal editors publish articles based on what deserves to be published, not what needs to be published to meet revenue needs (or fulfilling a specific number of articles per issue).

ADAM ETKIN: The traditional peer review system seems to constantly be criticized, yet at the same time studies and surveys show the large majority of researchers view it as essential to any publication system.  Do you agree with the criticism? How would you improve the current system?

TOM RELLER: I think first that ‘seems’ is the right way to characterize this. That is, it more a function of the vocal minority and broader society’s focus on the negative, than reality. The truth is that for the vast majority of science, peer review works well, which you note scientists themselves agree. No one thinks peer review is perfect, it is after all an inherently human system and humans aren’t perfect, but people shouldn’t buy into the notion that a few mistakes means the whole system is flawed.

I would also add critics tend to focus on certain aspects of science, while ignoring others. For example, there may be small, intimate communities, where everyone knows each other, and don’t need to call upon much work from other disciplines, where the value of peer reviewed academic journals may lessen. But most communities are global and interdisciplinary, reliant on the work of others, who they may not know.

The system will be continually improved in two ways, the first being technology. New software programs and other detection systems are being developed and increasingly utilized during the peer review process. The second is more natural, in that because of increased access, more people are reading more papers, and pointing out more flaws; reviewers are more aware of problem areas than ever before.  There’s a role as well for other alternative forms of peer review, like post or open peer review but broadly speaking I think the traditional method of peer review serves us well and will continue on for some time.

In terms of improving the system, it’s not widely known but we run a program of peer review innovation projects at Elsevier:

  1. Article Transfer Service which with author permission an editor can expedite to another more relevant journal without the requirement for full re-submission.
  2. PeerChoice enables reviewers to select articles that match his/her academic interest.
  3. Scientific Screening by professional editors to help academic editors manage the large number of out of scope and substandard papers that would otherwise require peer review.
  4. Open Peer Commentary published review articles are accompanied by five one-page comments from other scientists along with the author’s statement/rebuttal of these comments.  While successful in attracting attention to a journal, it is very time intensive.  How scalable this is remains to be seen.

Some have suggested that the process of review by experts could be replaced and potentially bettered by social networking approaches, leveraging the “wisdom of crowds.” Publishers have experimented with open peer review models. So far the outcomes do not support the view that review by selected experts can be replaced to sustain the production and dissemination of high-quality science over the long term.  This may, of course, change in future and we will continue to encourage innovation in peer review practices.

ADAM ETKIN: Another target of much criticism is Impact Factor.  Do you foresee a time when IF is less important? If so, how soon do you think this might be the case?

TOM RELLER: While we recognize the Impact Factor at Elsevier, we also nurture the idea of using other indicators of journal performance.  Alternative metrics should and will develop, and become rather prominent – within some fields sooner than others.  It’s hard to say exactly how soon though, there’s a great deal of inertia behind using it.

ADAM ETKIN: Related to IF, Academia has created a culture where in order for researchers to gain tenure, promotions, grants etc. they must publish in high IF journals.  Do you see this changing any time soon?

TOM RELLER: I think this is nearly the same question, but I’d add that publishers didn’t invent the current system, rather just provide services that support it.  We will continue to do so as that system evolves.

ADAM ETKIN: How important do you see social media measurements such as altmetrics being in the future? Are you concerned that such measurements have the potential to be “gamed” by purchasing tweets, likes and so on.  How might those concerns be addressed?

TOM RELLER: It’s hard to say, though as previously noted there is a role for them and they’ll advance in some fields more than others. I think concerns about gaming such systems is legitimate, but that’s true of the Impact Factor as well.  Personally, I’m more concerned about sample bias. Which is to say that papers authored by, or noticed by, people favoring altmetrics will be noticed (biased) over those papers authored by people not participating in them. This is a big concern for 2nd and 3rd world researchers that are still quite far behind in terms of technology and communication than some in the technology class. The innovators are crucial, and cool, newsworthy, etc., but they are still a small minority of the global research world. We should take care to not over-promote, or over-advance, forms of measurement the entire world isn’t able to participate in.

ADAM ETKIN: What are the services that scholarly publishers offer that are the most valuable?  Are there services these publishers provide which are not easily replaceable due to cost, expertise, efficiency or other reasons?

TOM RELLER: There are a lot of valuable services provided by publishers, but two areas strike me as particularly important. One, is the recruitment and staffing support for editors and editorial boards.  The second is what publishers are doing to bring in new classes of researchers from 2nd and 3rd world countries.  There’s sometimes a false impression put forth that research is only conducted in North America and Europe, and that technology enables all to publish. The reality is that the growth in research output is to come from new areas of the globe that have not yet been fully assimilated, and only publishers have the infrastructure and support systems in place to assure the integrity of such research.  The neutrality of international publishers – who do not have an agenda in terms of promoting or protecting particular ideas, countries, institutions or ideas – is of particular value here.

Are publisher’s services easily replaceable? In considering that question, keep in mind that at Elsevier we compete with other publishers to attract and handle 950,000 submissions each year, we publish more than 300,000 of those articles, and we enable the discovery of not only that content but also the content of around 5,000 other publishers. We manage 600 terabytes of data in electronic warehouses, full of articles neatly edited, expertly tagged, structured and preserved in perpetuity.  We then market this information and promote articles that contain really interesting science.

We also organize conferences that bring academic communities together and provide workshops for authors and editors.  What we as publishers do is actually quite complex and scaled.  Unfortunately, one of our communications challenges is that when we do our job well, then our value is often invisible.  What unfortunately tends to get more noticed is the occasional error, and not the hundreds of thousands of articles that flow through our system easily and come out the other end improved, ready to impress, and widely available, cited, and used.

ADAM ETKIN: Do you have anything else to mention regarding the scholarly publishing industry and what publishers in this field are “good for?”

TOM RELLER: I think publishers have been great for creating a science ecosystem that is largely taken for granted. That’s good in some ways; people should trust science and not know or care much why they trust it.  But now the technology and communications environment has evolved, publishers need to create a new science communications ecosystem, where people not only share research, but have a better understanding of what publishers did to ensure its integrity.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Tom.  See, not everyone at Elsevier worships Satan (as far as I know).  In the coming weeks I’ll continue this series of interviews with members of the STM publishing community. I look forward to any comments you may have.

Publishers! What are they good for? Say it again, Ya’ll!

Who am I? What am I doing here?


James Stockdale Formal Portrait.jpg

Formal portrait of Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale
in full dress white uniform. Source Wikipedia

Who I am NOT.

No, I am not Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, Ross Perot’s former Vice Presidential running mate who opened the 1992 Vice Presidential debate by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”  There are many things which I am not.  I am not a scientist; not a researcher.  I certainly don’t think of myself as a “scholar” and doubt anyone else thinks of me as such.  I’m also not an astronaut, jedi knight, pro cyclist, successful author, or major league baseball player; although at various points in my life I’d wished I was all of those things.

So, again….who am I?

I am Adam Etkin, Director of Publishing for the Academy of Management, husband to Sara, father of 1 boy (Ozzie), 1 girl (Zoe), 2 cats (Tic Tac & Yankee), and 1 dog (Sweetums).  I’m a life-long NYer with 2 Bachelors degrees; 1 in Literature and another in Community & Human Services.  I’m currently pursuing my Masters of Publishing at Pace University (expected summer 2013).

Most importantly, for the purposes of this Blog (for now anyway), I’m someone who has worked in the scholarly publishing (STM) industry for over 14 years.  I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two.  I’ve had the pleasure of going to presentations given by many folks in the industry I admire and respect.  I’m happy to say I’ve gotten to know some of them and over the years established some relationships I truly value.  We talk and debate about the state of our industry frequently, and as I study for my Masters of Publishing degree I’m forced to look at certain aspects anew.

This may sound unbelievable, but I love my job.

I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and growing up it was my family’s dream that I’d become a doctor (sorry mom).  That was pretty typical among the members of my Tribe.  If you were not smart enough to be a doctor,  a lawyer was acceptable.  If you were really bad….an accountant.

Rim shot.  I’m pretty sure that’s an old Jackie Mason joke I just butchered.  (For you kids out there, Jackie Mason is a stand up comic who used to be funny before you were born.)

So, again, I’m not a doctor, scientist, or researcher, but by working in the STM publishing industry I get to play in that sand box.  I’m part of that process and I like to think that in some small way what I (and STM publishers as a group) do helps to spread knowledge, research, and science while contributing to the world in a positive manner.

There’s a lot of debate in the industry about HOW we go about all of this.  The Open Access movement has momentum and clashes with traditional publishing models.  Impact Factor faces constant criticism and there are new, interesting metrics such as Altmetrics challenging the status quo.  The peer review process which is so important to STM publishing seems to always be under fire.  New, rapid advancements in technology is disrupting (BUZZ WORD) the industry and forcing publishers to evolve.

Recently as part of the Masters of Publishing program I had to conduct some interviews with publishing professionals.  My hope is that on this Blog I’ll be able to share some of those conversations, insights, and opinions.  And hey, I sometimes have some opinions and thoughts of my own.  (DISCLAIMER: Those opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of AOM).  Maybe together we can figure some stuff out.

That’s who I am (kinda).  Who are you?

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