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The Personality of a Publisher

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.]

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

21 thoughts on “The Personality of a Publisher

  1. The role of human judgement in science is a fun problem that I have worked on for many years. Scientific publishing looms large in that picture and you are right that judgement is unavoidable. Individual judgements and collective judgements can be studied separately but these are merely scale differences not differences in kind. Editors and communities are not different critters. The former is a member of the latter and acting as such.

    But I avoid the term “subjective” because it carries too much psycho-baggage. Judgement is relative to the observer but that does not make it less than objective, except in the sense that it can be mistaken. By analogy, special relativity says the length of an object is relative to the observer but that does not make it subjective.

    Our judgements are based on what we believe and have experienced and this is necessarily different for each person. This fact does not make our judgements less than objective. That it does is the great confusion with the concept of subjectivity. The real problem is that no one likes to be judged, but ongoing judgement is essential for scientific progress. Science is a never ending beauty contest because truth is beauty.

    Posted by David Wojick | Jun 3, 2013, 7:44 am
  2. Thank you, PLoS ONE and others who do not consider importance. Let the masses publish there. Quality authors will come to journals like mine where importance is valued.

    Seriously, any top journal with limited space/resources will eventually implement a “good, but not good enough” criteria. This doesn’t seem a limit for PLoS ONE and similar open journals. Do you think the industry is coming to the point where you get the common stuff free and pay for the quality articles?

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Jun 3, 2013, 9:30 am
  3. Great piece Joe. It has always struck me as odd that some feel that a carefully curated set of experts expressing judgment on a work before it’s published is a bad thing, but that a stochastic process of letting anyone with the time to bother leaving a comment, regardless of their qualifications, is a better way to judge the importance of a paper.

    There’s also another level to which some wish to de-humanize science–just last week, there was a comment on a posting here that suggested that all scientists should be paid the same salary, “to avoid careerists.” There’s this weird notion that researchers should live like ascetic monks, and eschew all thoughts of comfort, security or improving one’s station in life. That they shouldn’t seek to exploit their own discoveries and hard work, and choose instead to be purely “open”, to give everything away in order to drive progress. That they should stop acting like human beings with families to feed and shelter. That there’s no value in competition, and that science should be run as a collective, rather than a meritocracy.

    Posted by David Crotty | Jun 3, 2013, 9:41 am
  4. “Does not judge the importance of a work:” Somone is judging, otherwise the half of all authors who ever publish only one paper would publish more — and we would see more publication of negative results.

    Posted by Albert Henderson | Jun 3, 2013, 10:02 am
  5. “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.” Exactly the same thing can be said about book publishing, with the staff acquiring editor substituted for the journal editor. Publishers gain a reputation in large part because of the vision and influence of their top editors, like Lindsay Waters at Harvard and Bill Germano previously at Routledge. This is what “listbuilding” is all about. It is very similar, in many ways, to what a bibliophile does in accumulating a collection of rare books, which reflects the collector’s personality.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Jun 3, 2013, 10:52 am
  6. What this is really about is where the control of publishing and assessing scientific content lies: Does it sit in the hands of the journal staff or does it sit in the hands of the authors and readers? I wouldn’t expect the publisher representatives commenting here to be able to understand this. If you are an editor, of course you think editors are indispensably valuable.

    To follow Joe’s example of proof by quotation (apologies to Upton Sinclair): “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his [self-esteem] depends upon his not understanding it.”

    Posted by drgunn | Jun 3, 2013, 1:21 pm
    • Good quote, but it could apply to anyone in this debate. I’m not sure it moves us along.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jun 3, 2013, 1:24 pm
    • But all of the editors and all of the peer reviewers on the journals I manage are readers/authors/active members of the research community. Why do their views count less than any other member of the community?

      Posted by David Crotty | Jun 3, 2013, 1:27 pm
    • ‘We’ understand perfectly well. We are also perfectly capable of asking our various stakeholders for their thoughts and opinions. There is a genuine question about pre vs post publication value assessment, but calling ‘us’ stupid, which what you just did, doesn’t really advance the debate does it. Personally speaking, I think there is a great need for a better, more nuanced and statistically objective measurement of the value of a scholar and their works. I have long been a fan of Johan Bollen’s work on metrics. He’s spoken at The SSP Annual Meeting on multiple occasions. But the thing here, is that it’s not good enough to be different, or alternative. It has to be objectively better than the processes it replaces. Statistically significant. What is value, and what is a high worth item of scholarly production? Complex question, there are no Cepheid Variables in scholarly output with which to measure the intrinsic worth of a work of scholarship.

      I hope #altmetrics delivers some real breakthroughs. I really do. I think baseball stats for scholars would bring transparency… But would they also bring a pitiless clarity to the process of science or the humanities?

      And to finish with a quote of my own… Carl Sagan “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” there’s lots of claims post pub is a better way to do it, but I’ve yet to see the extraordinary evidence.

      Posted by David Smith | Jun 3, 2013, 4:41 pm
    • Gunn, your insults aside the answer is simple. In the short term the assessment sits in the hands (?) of the journal staff. But in the long run it sits in the hands (where did you get this metaphor?) of the authors and readers who make up the community of interest. Journals who miss that match will fade away. This is basic economics. Serve or die.

      For the record I have never met a publisher so my self esteem does not depend on that. It depends on trying to understand science, something you might try.

      Posted by David Wojick | Jun 3, 2013, 9:26 pm
  7. Trade publishers definitely started out with “personalities.” Many were named after their founders. The lists reflected a sense of that personality. Today with the corporations eating up and consolidating publishers, there is less. But still shines through.

    Enjoyed the article quite a bit.

    Posted by Jack W Perry | Jun 3, 2013, 9:46 pm
  8. Joe, I enjoyed your post and agree journals definitely do have personality. I was amused by your choice of a quote. from Newton. I believe Newton wrote one journal article, really letter on optics in Phil Trans and apparently was not all that appreciative of the “constructive feedback” he received from his colleagues with this newfangled form of publication, never published in Phil Trans again and pretty much withdrew from the Royal Society.

    Posted by David Solomon | Jun 4, 2013, 1:26 am
  9. “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.” –

    These few sentences highlight the problem that many people have with traditional journals: Editors should not play a major role in determining how a field of study develops, it should be the scientists and their scientific findings. To suggest that Editors should “say what is good and what is not” simply because they are chosen as “Mr Bigs” makes no sense

    “Most people do in fact pay close attention to this phenomenon and admire it, albeit often in secret” – if its in secret, how do you know?

    Posted by savrajgrewal | Jun 12, 2013, 2:34 pm
    • How does one know that most people admire this? Because the submission rates to the top journals continue to rise.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Jun 12, 2013, 2:37 pm
      • The total rate of submissions to all journals is rising.

        I would argue that many scientists DO NOT like the stanglehold that editors have on deciding what is published – and I’m not basing this on their secret thoughts

        Posted by savrajgrewal | Jun 12, 2013, 2:43 pm
        • My last reply to this exchange, which is silly. Of course many scientists don’t like to be evaluated by third parties. No one likes to be evaluated.

          Posted by Joseph Esposito | Jun 12, 2013, 2:48 pm
    • But in many (most?) cases, the editor who is making that decision is indeed a working researcher and a leading member of the community. Isn’t this exactly the sort of person who should be determining how a field of study develops? Does their opinion and expertise somehow stop counting when they take on an editorship role?

      Posted by David Crotty | Jun 12, 2013, 2:51 pm
      • Let’s remind ourselves that input and output of academic R&D (money and published articles) has doubled every 15 years since the 17th century — “twigging” new special niches of study and more complex formats in the process. Publishers have a few options. The commercial publishers have embraced it with great success, sometimes conceiving of new journals before selecting an editor. The associations, where editors have more influence, stagger. ACS decided “no new journals” for a while. APS simply expanded and subdivided Physical Review until it lost all member-subscribers. Any number of new associations were born to fill gaps in coverage, many ended up as clients of commercial houses.

        Thus I would say the way a publisher rolls is more a matter of who has the power — the editors or the businessmen — than of personality.

        Posted by Albert Henderson | Jun 12, 2013, 3:07 pm
      • The same is true of research funders such as program managers. Moreover their skills are evaluated over time by citations and other factors, which do involve the whole community. Saying scientists should decide how a field develops is a meaningless abstraction. We are talking about specific components of a human social system that works well. Peer reviewed funding and peer reviewed publication are two primary evaluation mechanisms, among others, for which there are no viable alternatives.

        I am reminded of the fact that no one likes Democracy but there is no better way.

        Posted by David Wojick | Jun 12, 2013, 3:15 pm

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