It is vitally important that we bring an end to this crisis of trust before it spreads any further, that we bring back order, fair dealing, and trust. . . . Technology, market structure, and new products have evolved more quickly than our capacity to understand and control them. The result has been a series of crises over the past few years that have caused many . . . to lose confidence or to think that the whole system is a rigged game.
The quote above is not drawn from one of the recent scandals or stings in scholarly publishing, but from a book called, “Dark Pools: The Rise of the Machine Traders and the Rigging of the U.S. Stock Market,” by Scott Patterson. This excellent book is even better than Michael Lewis’ recent “Flash Boys,” giving a broader historical perspective on the development of the technologies that are now levying hidden taxes on investors in a way that would make August “Gus” Gorman proud.
Patterson is quoting Thomas Peterffy, who was one of the innovators of electronic trading, but who viewed it as solving problems and delivering fairness to the market. Over time, as the unintended consequences mounted, its true effects — a more opaque market filled with deception and theft, a market that no longer fulfilled its intended purposes but had been perverted by the very speed he thought would be its salvation — had changed his mind, and he and others began warning that the market was no longer serving its intended purpose.
This may sound familiar. For 20 years, scholarly publishing has been responding to what some term “the digital revolution.” Promising an end to scarcity and delays, the technocrats — and I count myself as among these to a point — believed all the benefits of abundance and speed would only help science advance. Rapid publication practices were established, online-only journals and journal sections were pioneered, and online manuscript submission and editing became commonplace. In addition, movements like open access (OA) came into being.
Now, 20 years on, we find ourselves with an OA environment known as much for inadequate and exploitative publishing practices as for any increase in access; with a growing number of retractions; and with experiments that purposely push normal controls to the side in order to increase the throughput of the system.
Strong OA journals are undermined by this unfortunate situation. Worse, more subtle and clearly addressable limitations and problems with OA aren’t front and center because these practices are such an obvious blight on the industry. Publishers big and small have been caught up in stings showing their peer review practices are inadequate. The “pay for play” label is starting to stick to OA, and it may be hard to remove. And the industry as a whole is getting a black eye because we aren’t able to put in the kinds of controls readers and the public expect from us.
What incidents have damaged our collective reputation? Well, they range from the infamous “predatory publishers” to the more subtle lack of adequate review revealed in various stings, from the more widely publicized John Bohannon sting published in Science to a variety of individual tests of the OA journals market which have led to standalone stories of journals that publish nonsense for money.
No serious publisher — no matter the business model — has any incentive to see these practices continue. There is a risk to the overall reputation of scholarship at play, and publishers are a major public face of scholarship, as well as providing important third-party validation functions. If both are damaged — i.e., if a major outward-facing aspect of scholarship is deemed no longer trustworthy and if the third-party validation step is deemed of marginal value — irrevocable damage to scholarly communications could ensue.
This is another way of saying that the big brands caught up in the Bohannon scandal have a lot more at stake than a few hundred authors paying APCs. Meanwhile, more careful OA publishers and editors are tainted by scandals like this. Non-OA publishers see a problem in their professional ranks, and it reflects to some extent on them, as well. And for the OA movement overall, incidents like this have a chilling effect on the business model, which has incentives that encourage throughput. More broadly, our industry’s ability to handle innovation is called into question. To some, it may seem we can’t innovate to provide public access without compromising quality or allowing exploitative practices to emerge on a widespread scale.
Interestingly, a recent study suggests that the problem of trust is not one scientists see as their problem — that is, they have ways of establishing trust and filters which naturally steer them away from shady publishers and publications. So, the problem is really ours to solve, because it is the reputations of publishers, editors, and reviewers currently doing good work which are at stake.
What can our industry put in place to create incentives for publishers to avoid shady practices?
Directories of OA publishers have a place in this, but these directories suffer from the same limitation, but with an added loop of complexity. That is, users need to know to look at a directory before reading a paper. And the question is now, Which directory? There are a few, and their quality varies. Codes of conduct can help here, but again, which code? And how does compliance get carried forward (and lack of compliance communicated)?
The economics are one area to examine. Shady practices are not limited to the OA business model, as the “Elsevier fake journals” scandal showed. In that case, advertising and sponsorship dollars tempted a regional executive to skirt ethical publication practices. The shady practice was discovered, and the responsible party punished. But the temptation still exists.
Gold OA presents a true conundrum here, as it is the model many predatory publishers use, yet it can and does support good journals, as well. As I noted in a recent post, Gold OA faces a system-wide challenge from the emerging acceptance of unpaid embargoes to support public access, so the incentives for fly-by-night Gold OA publishers may begin evaporating. This may be an opportunity quality Gold OA journals want to push, a timeframe to differentiate themselves.
One alternative is simply persist with stings and scandals, in hopes that this ultimately makes the overall culture wise up. This seems a painful path with too much collateral damage. It also seems unlikely to work. To return to the analog of financial markets, the 2008 meltdown and the 2009 “flash crash” had slight and temporary ameliorative effects on the markets and their regulation, but the trends toward the opaque high-speed trading currently dominating the equity markets were not deflected long. Trust eroded, but larger trends made the markets impossible to avoid for people with 401(k)s and mutual funds. Our own culture’s escalating “publish or perish” culture seems to be exerting similar unavoidable pressures.
It’s also important to remember that publishers aren’t the only ones pushing boundaries. Authors are doing their fair share, as well. In a handful of meetings recently, I’ve heard this discussed both publicly and privately — the increase in retractions, the increase in fraud and plagiarism occurring across disciplines, the increasing rate of problematic submissions, and so forth. Just like Wall Street and the drive for profits, academia is pushing so hard on the prestige and publication paradigm that it is warping in response. Authors and publishers alike are bending the rules to relieve the stress.
This has been a long-term issue, with Phil Davis writing in 2010:
. . . academia is a highly conservative system, largely determined by disciplinary norms and organized around external peer-review and assessment. Starting from this premise, the resultant lack of scholarly engagement in radically new forms of publishing should not be that surprising.
The finding mentioned above that academics themselves don’t view this as a problem they can’t just ignore underscores the point.
I wrote about this in 2012, stating:
If the goal is to change the culture of publishing, those who wish to do so will need more than technology and its superficial effects. They will need to go deep into the incentives, cultures, and habits of mind over generations.
There is a temptation to write this all off as evolutionary — a long-term shift in the market that will ultimately result in an improvement. This is to me a perilous rationalization, as it allows those of us currently running this industry to abdicate our responsibilities in making sure we run it responsibly. As the financial industry has found out, capitulating to technological trends and allowing them to replace the inherent value propositions the public expects can lead to real trouble. It’s subtle, as you may never notice the tens of thousands of dollars missing from your retirement accounts, eked away pennies at a time. The trust problem with scholarly and scientific publishing is subtle, too. But it’s unmistakable, and it needs to be addressed.