Glass smash with liquid
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LiquidPublication is an EU-funded research project to see whether a new technological approach to producing journals in new ways can provide a superior experience for researchers. It’s been kicking around since 2007, but seems to have picked up at least some fresh press coverage lately. Led by an Italian researcher, Fabio Casati, the main journal effort, called Liquid Journals, eschews peer-review, suggests authors “post instead of publish,” and allows readers to assemble their own liquid journals and compete for readers.

According to a story in Technology Review, the problems Casati and his colleagues are trying to address include:

  • Their perception that peer-review is broken (a few misguided reviewers can reject papers based on personal vendetta, for instance, and there’s no public accountability)
  • Their perception that online publishing lowers barriers throughout the system, so journals with a “choke-hold on distribution” no longer need to dominate
  • Their perception that papers are improperly “static informational cul-de-sacs” rather than “living documents”

The first hurdle for a new approach is to demonstrate superiority. That may be a struggle for Liquid Journals — judging from video demonstrations on the Liquid Journal site, creating a liquid journal is actually quite time-consuming. This alone might be enough to thwart adoption.

But should a difficult setup not inhibit adoption, other problems might. The premise around peer-review seems especially naive — the Liquid Journals people mistakenly believe that by moving experts out of the current peer-review process, these same experts magically become less likely to be capricious, vindictive, or egocentric.

In the traditional journal, editors are critical to having a responsive, responsible peer-review process. They keep tabs on people, know or see trends in reviews, and, at their best, act as a bulwark against a system becoming chaotic or petty. I’d argue that the Liquid Journals approach increases the likelihood of peer-reviewers becoming disengaged on a large scale, and amplifies the risk that those who remain in a system that insists on their compulsive attention is likely to attract reviewers who are more likely to be capricious, vindictive, or egocentric.

From what I can see, the Liquid Journals approach doesn’t save readers any time, either, a critical failing. In fact, it has the potential to make it harder to find information. Tellingly, like a lot of these supposed “solutions,” it shifts the burden onto the reader, represents a form of filter failure, doesn’t manage abundance in any meaningful or useful way, and assumes that it is somehow superior because peer-review is in crisis (which, as we have shown on numerous occasions over the past week, it likely is not).

So, all the high-minded and unrealistic mistakes persist in the Liquid Journals approach, with the most foolish of them being the dismissal of brand as a marker of quality. By allowing liquid content to pool in myriad puddles instead of being part of a clearly defined brand presence with continuity and consistency on a meaningful level, users of the information have something worse than no indication of quality — they have a cacophony of quality signals, with no clear upper boundary on number, no promise of consistency, and no path to reliability.

Their proposal is a set of shortcuts that just won’t work.

The idea also smacks of funding latency — it might have sounded good when it was proposed back in 2002 or something, but by the time the funding request made it to the bank, the world had moved on, lessons were learned, and the idea seems simple in the worst sense compared to where we’ve come.

Running a journal is hard work, especially a journal with a meaningful brand, which usually involves a deep community identity and commitment. A journal is about much more than the technology of paper, ink, wires, or electrons. Thinking that technology can make a journal is not only wrong — it’s just plain lazy.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "Liquid Journals or Lazy Journals — Can Technology Alone Make a Journal?"

The system seems somewhat contradictory toward its own aims. First, there’s this somewhat confusing statement:

“The more papers you produce, the more brownie points you get,” says Casati. “So most of your time is spent writing papers instead of thinking or doing science.”

Doesn’t one have to actually do science in order to have something to write a paper about? And if there’s a problem that time is devoted to communicating results rather than doing actual research, why propose a new system that creates an enormous timesink as well? First, you’re still going to have to write up your results here, so no time saved from that process. Then, any time spent curating a “liquid journal”, commenting, blogging, etc. is further time not spent “doing science”. It’s replacing one perceived evil with something that’s likely worse as far as the time commitment.

I also take issue with the notion of the scientific paper as a “living document”. There’s certainly value in a wiki-style approach, creating a resource that gives the current state of the art view of a given field (though “Knowledge Environments” don’t seem to have gained much traction with readers), but that’s serving a different purpose than the scientific paper, which is meant as a documentation of a particular set of research experiments. It’s important to have an accurate historical record, rather than a constantly shifting, “We’ve always been at war with EastAsia” record where one can easily distort what really happened.

Kent, I’m also surprised you didn’t jump all over this nonsense:

“The idea is that when people write papers, they put them on their webpage quickly, easily and for zero cost,” Casati says.

“Since liquid publications cost nothing, he says…”

Clearly someone hasn’t been reading your recent posts about the true costs of digital publishing.

As for replacing peer review, the idea that open, unmoderated comments will somehow be free of bias, agendas, and personal vendettas, and that there will be some sort of public accountability is fairly laughable.

Both very valid points. I had a longer version of this post, but backed things out to keep it brief. In short, the Liquid Journals idea is a nearly perfect example of how naive some people can be about publishing, science, research, academia, and the digital economy.

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