There is a much-repeated joke that makes me chuckle every time I hear it:
Q: What is an economist?
A: An economist is someone who doesn’t have enough personality to be an accountant.
Whatever it is that makes up personality, it’s the driver of our world. It does not speak to such things as black holes in space or the process of cell division or the speed of a body as it falls to earth; but what it does address is why we care about such things. The physical universe, the world of science, may exist “out there” in a land known as philosophical realism, but we study and define such things as an expression of our own concerns. From time to time it’s important to be reminded that we are irredeemably human. As a college roommate (high as a kite at the time) once said to the house cat: “Try as you will, you will never, ever be a dog.”
Publishers — who are irredeemable in any number of ways — have personality, too. Goethe famously said that “publishers are all cohorts of the devil; there must be a special hell for them somewhere.” Nowadays, we (mostly) imagine publishers as at best evil Wall Street types or technological Luddites or the suppressors of the intelligence and insight of authors. In their spare time they torture babies. Publishers, of course, have a different view of themselves, mostly focusing on the practical circumstances in which they do their work (as measured by money) and their collective sense of being underappreciated.
The odd thing is that whether the personality of a publisher is appealing or not, good or bad, increasingly that personality is thought to be an encumbrance on the process of the dissemination of material. What the world wants, many believe, is a friction-free environment, where scientific literature is examined objectively without the subjective intrusions of a publisher. After all, this is science we are talking about — subjectivity should play no role in it.
Thus we have the extraordinary editorial policy of PLoS ONE, which I will quote here from the PLoS Web site:
The peer review process does not judge the importance of the work, rather focuses on whether the work is done to high scientific and ethical standards and is appropriately described, and that the data support the conclusions.
(The entire PLoS Web site could use a copy editor.)
Does not judge the importance of a work: I shook my head in amazement the first time I read that. Reviewers are asked to exercise judgment about things that are arguably harder (ethical standards), but importance? Nah.
So here we have the myth of objectivity applied to research publishing. I don’t mean “myth” in the sense of “lie” but to refer to a legend or story. Science is objective, ergo science publishing should be objective, too. I wouldn’t want science to be anything less than objective, but it is not a matter of objectivity that makes us look at one thing as opposed to another. (Paul Simon: “The way we look to a distant constellation/that’s dying in the corner of the sky.”) Science publishing, in other words, is inherently subjective; it has personality.
I happen to admire PLoS ONE greatly, so my comments about personality are in the way of positioning the beasts in the jungle, not of declaring that the lion will always eat the lamb. The question I have regarding PLoS ONE is, “Where does the personality go?”
In the traditional publishing model, which operates under the auspices of editorial selection (editors review material, make recommendations for changes, and then determine what gets published and how the work gets positioned in the marketplace), personality is everywhere evident. The first expression of personality is in the brand of the publisher or publication. There are pieces that are right for Science or Nature, others that make sense for JACS or Limnology and Oceanography. Branding is also an aspect of book publishing, although many people erroneously believe that the author, not the publisher, is the brand. An author who submits a manuscript to Palgrave instead of the University of California Press is usually making a careful differentiation; for a trade author, distinguishing between Hachette and Random House could be a career-defining decision. The reason people make this rookie mistake about publishers’ brands is that they don’t realize that personality, captured as brands, looks both upstream and downstream — upstream to authors, downstream to the distribution channel.
In the journals world, the principal assertion of personality is the choice of the editor. There is no more important decision a publisher can make, as the editor brings his or her network to bear on the journal; that network in turn influences what gets published (and what does not). It is a position with immense responsibility. In effect, the editor is asserting his or her view of how a field of study should develop. This, of course, is much criticized nowadays — after all, who is Mr. Big to say what is good and what is not? — but the answer is that Mr. Big gets to make these assertions precisely because he is Mr. Big. Most people do in fact pay close attention to this phenomenon and admire it, albeit often in secret. There are of course authors who don’t want to appear in Science and Nature, writers who disdain The New York Review of Books. You can count them.
Against this paradigm of personality we have materials reviewed for methodological rigor and nothing more. This literally depersonalized system finds its meaning in the comments and subsequent publications made post-publication. This is the commentary of the community that assesses the work of scientists and arrives at a consensus. Now we are at a philosophical divide — there are those who believe that the community is the best arbiter, and those who defer to individuals who have established themselves as authorities and visionary leaders.
I am myself a characterological pluralist, but I do have a soft spot for the imposing personality of a distinguished individual. Of course, you cannot expect one person to do everything, but in my experience consensus is not always able to do anything. Communities domesticate wild ideas; the outliers are weeded out and (stretching the metaphor) the gene pool is homogenized. There is no greater obstacle to the creative imagination than a roomful of highly qualified people. The tyranny of a community can be a terrible thing. It can transform science publishing into an extension of high school.
As a pluralist, though, I am determined to have things both ways. The traditional model, driven by editorial selection, in a digital age is exposed to post-publication peer review whether it welcomes it or not. You simply cannot stop people from talking. Thus the personality of the publisher and editor must either force a new consensus or be overwhelmed by it. Meanwhile, in the Web-oriented world of PLoS ONE and its ilk, what begins as post-publication peer review may in time generate new authorities — commentators whose view of the materials disseminated through Gold OA publishing begins to take on greater and greater importance. Willful individuals, in other words, may lead from behind, whereas in the traditional model they lead from the front.
What is in any event evident is that the core mistake — the confusion of science with science publishing — is not one that is going to disappear anytime soon. The OSTP has just enshrined this error in its new policies, and such philanthropies as the Wellcome Trust continue to proceed as though a pipe and a picture of a pipe are one and the same. For my part I am reminded of Newton’s famous remark, that if he has seen further than others, it is because he stood on the shoulder of giants. That’s “giants,” not “others.” That was a comment from one Mr. Big to another.
[This post was tempered in part by a thread in a Google+ community on academic publishing. William Gunn's comments were particularly helpful.]