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Watching the Wrong Things?

Scholarly publishers have traditionally focused on articles, issues, subscriptions, citations, impact factors, and business models. But maybe by focusing on these things, which are much more about us than about our readers (who are becoming users today, a significant shift in the relationship), we’re falling into a common trap — watching the wrong things.

Except in special cases, users don’t care about citations, and they may have stopped caring about articles in important ways. What they care about is information. Just read this comment from the Economist’s site about the recent Science paper showing a narrowing of citations:

[I]f a paper isn’t on G[oogle] S[cholar], and I haven’t seen it in another publication, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist. . . .

Basically, if I can’t download a “free” pdf, the paper doesn’t get referenced. I do go from time to time to the library for mission critical papers, but the time it takes to get a paper is on the order of 30 min to an hour. A massive waste of time.

[O]ften older papers aren’t worth referencing, the 80’s and 90’s probably saw more invalidation of old research than the entire preceding century in total (in the biological sciences anyway). And this decade will probably be more than the 80’s and 90’s combined, the pace of research is just that much faster, and that many more people doing it. You don’t reference a 1970’s paper that is half wrong, you reference the 1998 paper that examined the 70’s one and refined the concepts.

There’s a lot going on in this PhD’s life, but the end bit is the most interesting to me. Perhaps users are citing differently because they think of citations as links. If a citation is a link, then linking to another link is enough. Therefore, you link less in a networked environment than if your article is a complete, self-contained portal on the research. In fact, if research is faster than ever, why link to old stuff that is potentially outdated or irrelevant?

Another big shift is that if it’s not online, it doesn’t exist, at least from a user’s perspective. I even heard top-tier researchers mutter this, as if not citing a paper that is inaccessible online is akin to sending a message or doling out a punishment.

This invites the question: What if more than papers were online? Or, more pointedly, does anyone care about the finished paper anymore?

The Open Access debate has largely been about trying to change what traditional publishers do with traditional articles. In fact, to show their fidelity to this idea, some of the proponents have launched traditional journals full of traditional articles. But what if, as Dan Pollock from Outsell recently said in a proprietary analysis (quoted below with permission), the traditional article won’t be the coin of the realm much longer:

Much scholarly communication takes place outside the STM publishers’ domain, via conferences, proceedings, data sets and so forth, none of which fit the process of the peer reviewed research article. Scientists have long (always?) been collaborative creatures – and the digital age means that scientists, and science itself, no longer need publishers to handle the distribution and sharing of information. Web 2.0 technology makes everyone a publisher, with free two-way access to a global audience no longer dependent on the letters page of a Great Journal, and online commentary mechanisms offering peer review on the fly. Much of the of the traditional journal publishers’ input is therefore becoming redundant. “Access” – however one defines it – is no longer a service that offers value in and of itself.

I spoke with Dan about his perspective, which focuses on how funders are beginning to think there may be a different path, one that doesn’t involve STM publishers. In our discussion, it became clear that a lot has to change, but change is not impossible.

We have to wait for the tools to change, the researchers to change, and the people who judge them to change. After all, a lot of researchers want to publish in high-impact journals because they know their committee will judge them on the impact of their research. So things could take 10-20 years to change, and funders could well accelerate things.

As could users. As the PhD student quoted above notes, everything’s accelerating  — the pace of research, the development of tools (text-mining, social networking, blogs, and others), the pace of publishing in general, the technological advantages of publishers.

Are we watching the wrong things — that is, articles, citations, and the like? Should we be watching funding bodies, users, academic reward systems, author talent, and emerging technologies instead? Should we be ethnographers rather than bibliographers?

Personally, I’ll feel safer watching where I’m going than where I’ve been.

About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Side Dishes by Stewart Wills

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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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