Cameron, the newly named Director of Advocacy for PLoS (beginning this July), framed his arguments in terms of technology and design. His premise was that the transformation is already here and that there are enough clues in the technology ecosystem to give us an idea of where things are heading. “The fundamental things we think of as making up a journal will change.” He summarized those things as follows:
- A journal contains articles.
- Articles are selected as the result of a process.
- The process is generally managed by a publisher.
- A journal belongs to one publisher.
- An article belongs to one journal.
- An article contains some narrative text and has a single version of record.
Neylon’s premise is not that one or two of these aspects might change, but that the entire structure (all of the premises together) represents a house of cards that will fall. He then showed the audience two websites built on WordPress (PLoS Currents Disasters and the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies). As Neylon put it, referring to WordPress and the journals built on it, “This is the worst that your free competition will ever be. I can put together a journal on this platform in 10 minutes with a free domain name.” Publishing has become easy.
He showed figshare, which started with a question: “What is the smallest meaningful unit of research to distribute?” The founders decided it was a figure, with enough information to make the figure understandable. It is not peer-reviewed and accommodates a wide range of formats. While the existence of WordPress does not unseat the six fundamental aspects of a journal mentioned above, Neylon posited that something like figshare certainly might — by challenging how people think about scholarly publication.
Neylon went on to make the point that when we can publish in smaller pieces, sometimes built into a narrative and sometimes not, we can build many things from our results. We need to make the interface to research compelling and useful. It needs to deliver what the researcher wants now. The problem is a design issue. The article is not the best interface for answering questions. He went on to say that someone will ultimately figure out the best way to make that interface work. “Once we realize [articles] don’t work, we’ll stop writing them.”
Michael Mabe started his retort with a question: Why hasn’t the journal changed more as a result of the Internet? Whereas Cameron Neylon framed his position around technology and design, Mabe’s argument introduced social aspects and human behavior.
- The structure of a book/pages is deeply embedded in the culture of reading and is reader friendly.
- The fundamental needs of researchers have remained static.
- There are only so many information niches, and they’re all filled.
Mabe started by saying it was the codex — the modern bound book form — that was the real revolutionary change, not the printing press. The codex is what started the familiarity with bound volumes and pages: “Two millennia of habit and utility take some undoing.”
Building on that point, he quoted a 2009 Elsevier study of 64,000 authors and stated that researchers still prize speed, referee quality, and reputation above all else in their publication expectations. Researcher needs have not changed significantly over time. In his opinion, scholarly publishing has evolved to meet the human and philosophical needs of researchers: “There are new tools but they serve old purposes.”
Finally, there are only so many informational niches to be served. Human senses still accommodate reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Mabe felt that the communication instances that addressed these areas were all filled. Technology might enhance them but it does not fundamentally change them.
The Twitter stream was very lively during both presentations. As is often the case in debates, both arguments applied a different lens to the topic. The result was an interesting conversation and perspectives with which attendees could both agree and disagree.