Freud’s notorious question–What does a woman want?–came to mind recently as I was pondering the disconnect between the prevailing wisdom about what scientists want and what they tell me. Of course I don’t get to speak to all scientists and my own sample is too small to be representative of anything, but I do spend day after day talking with scientists about scholarly communications. Do you belong to professional societies? What journals are central to your work? Do you attend conferences? What is your view of open access? If you could fix one thing about scholarly communications, what would it be?
Foreshadowing: I am going to share with you the one near-universal opinion that scientists hold about fixing scholarly communications. But you have to read to the end to find out
The phrase “prevailing wisdom” may smell like a straw man to the logically minded, and, yeah, it’s wrong to lump so many points of view together, but I’m going to do it anyway and let you decide how much straw there is in this argument. The conventional view (the straw man) is that what scientists want is access. They are working at institutions that simply cannot afford to subscribe to the publications they require for their work. Roadblocks to access are put up everywhere by publishers that do not have the best interests of the scientific community at heart.
On top of that, publishers exploit volunteer labor and have made the academic community dependent on the impact factor metric, which serves to strengthen the incumbent avaricious publishers. The editorial gatekeeping model of the publishers is managed by non-scientists and adds no value to the process and may even subtract from it. And so on.
I bet there is a kernel of truth to some of these broad generalizations (e.g, reviewers of journals articles receive no or little compensation, though the editors of journals are compensated, in some cases quite handsomely), but in my experience what scientists really want is quite different.
To begin with, none of the scientists I have interviewed has ever begun a discussion of journals by talking about what they read. They talk about where they publish, where they would like to publish, and the procedures (including obstacles) to get published where they want to. That is, the scientists in my tiny unrepresentative sample think of themselves as authors first, not readers. So how important is access? The most common response is “I get everything from the library” or “You can always get what you need.” There is indeed a problem with access, but it is access for authors, not for readers. Have the gatekeepers slammed the gates too hard? Well, that is debatable. As one would expect, the gate is hard to kick open for the individual author, but not too difficult (so my interviewees tell me) for the community at large. Everybody likes gatekeepers–at journals, at private clubs, at the admissions departments of elite universities–provided that they can get through the gate.
On the matter of open access, no scientist I have spoken to is unaware of it, but it is mostly a marginal matter. I recently remarked to a colleague, with whom I conduct these interviews, that about 1 scientist in 30 seemed to favor open access strongly, to which she responded, “If that.” Surely there is a disconnect here. It’s hard to imagine any topic that occupies more bandwidth in academic publishing than open access, and I will be disappointed if Stevan Harnad, Mike Taylor, and Michael Eisen don’t chime in on the comments section of this blog to point out how I have the whole thing wrong. But that’s what scientists tell me.
On the other hand, although few scientists expressed to me a strong interest in open access in their role as readers, they are keenly interested in it in their role as writers. That is, they believe that there is an audience for their work that does indeed have access problems, even though they themselves (that is, the authors) for the most part do not. Is this not the hope of all authors, all musicians, all movie-makers, that there is pent-up demand for their work if only the barriers to access could be torn down? Even a lowly blogger at, say, The Scholarly Kitchen (to choose a site at random), may dream of having a post picked up by, yes, Michael Eisen or even more significantly by Tim O’Reilly or the folks who run the Freshly Pressed selection at WordPress.com. (Inside baseball: this post will probably be read by between 2,000 and 3,000 people. In the unlikely event that it “goes viral” and reaches 10,000 views, I will be celebrated by my fellow chefs even as they plot to assassinate me.)
On peer review opinions vary. It’s good, it’s very good, it could be better, it used to be better, it’s good in some places but not in others, it’s hard to do well, people don’t make an effort to do it well, and so forth. On the other hand, the more limited form of peer review practiced by PLoS ONE (and widely imitated) triggers some skepticism. In my experience most scientists express a preference, somewhere between mild and modest, for hybrid publications, which employ traditional peer review, but also have a reasonably priced open access option. Publishers that have not already done so may wish to attempt to attract the authors who now publish with PLoS ONE with a hybrid program, which would include rigorous peer review and an “author-pays” fee of no more than PLoS ONE’s ($1,350). Some publishers that have put a program like this in place have seen significant revenues from the author fees.
What do almost all scientists agree about? The manuscript management systems employed by most publishers. Scientists detest these systems. They find them to be cumbersome and they express real frustration and sometimes outright anger over them. I will forebear naming names here, but some of the most prominent publishers and vendors of workflow management systems come under fire.
I am not surprised by this, having suffered through this experience myself. Publishers should think about this. A publisher’s equity is in its ability to attract the finest authors. So how does an author first interact with the publisher? By going online and struggling to upload a paper. For publishers who have never used their own systems (I think this is a very high percentage), consider how you feel trying to get a problem solved with Verizon or AT&T or (to take an extreme example) United Airlines. Poorly designed software interfaces combine with a strategy of never having anybody to answer telephones. If people had their blood pressure checked just before boarding a United flight, we would be reading articles about a mass epidemic of hypertension. But where would that article be published if the author is so frustrated by the publisher’s Web site?
There are two exceptions to this near-universal contempt for workflow management systems. One author complained to me about using them and then remarked that the system at PLoS is not that bad–not, he said, that it is in itself a reason to publish with PLoS ONE. Oh? Maybe it is part of the reason. I speculate that traditional publishers, who spend much of their time trying to make librarians happy (even as they charge as much for their materials as they can get away with), are at a disadvantage with pure Gold open access publishers, whose only job is to make authors happy.
But the second exception is more amusing. I was intrigued by a group of scientists who praised the submission system at one particular journal. So I investigated. That particular journal, beloved by all its authors, accepts submissions as email attachments. The managing editor calls authors to answer questions. It does not use workflow management software. Limited automation, which is expensive, but it makes the authors happy. What is this telling us about the limitations of technology in publishing?
I repeat: my sample of scientists is not large enough to be representative of the scientifc enterprise as a whole. But I do wonder about surveys whose findings are the complete opposite of mine. Why aren’t they talking to any of my guys?