Scholarly publishing, like any industry or profession is subject to interpretation, from within, from without, from adjacent industries and from random people walking down the street. As the discourse surrounding scholarly publishing increases, we thought it would be informative to Ask The Chefs: What is the biggest misconception people have about scholarly publishing?
Joe Esposito: I wish to exercise my right to take the Post-modern Fifth on this one: I refuse to answer because it would imply that there is a “me” that could be incriminated. One can only have a gripe about a misconception if there is a reasonably agreed-upon conception in the first place. Scholarly communications is not like that; few things are. It’s big and hairy, not unlike the elephant probed by the iconic blind men. Touching the trunk we say that scholarly communications is all about research funding; putting our hand on the massive belly, we say that scholarly communications is all about large institutional practices; as we pick up the tail, we say that scholarly communications is all about distribution and access. None of these perspectives is necessarily wrong, but they are all incomplete. It’s a fool’s errand, I believe, to seek the Unified Field Theory for what is essentially a social enterprise.
Meanwhile, sipping our Post-prandial Fifth, we might ask why the blind men are men or why we are privileging pachyderms.
Kent Anderson: There’s a lot of competition for this spot, so given the multi-point tie at the top in my mind between winners like “scientists don’t run scholarly publishing” (yes, they mostly do) to “publishers don’t do much” (yes, they really do), I’ll pick one that seems a little more muscular and enduring than the others — the misconception that scholarly publishing is essentially like other forms of publishing (music publishing, newspaper publishing, magazine publishing, mass media digital publishing).
This misconception pops up in surprising places, from board members who want to run luxury car ads to editors who want to write cute headlines and run news operations to librarians who dislike having to pay for unpopular (i.e., low-usage) content to marketers who can’t quite message the audience correctly because of this same misconception.
We spend time comparing ourselves to iTunes or the New York Times or Vanity Fair or the Huffington Post or Facebook. Not only are these comparisons mostly misleading and uninformative, but they also can obscure what we do really well. In fact, from a technology standpoint, business model perspective, infrastructure aspect, and expertise angle, we are miles ahead of many of the industries we spend time comparing ourselves to. Magazine publishers don’t have their version of ORCID or CrossRef or COUNTER. Newspaper publishers don’t have their version of CHORUS. Our digital transition hasn’t been easy, but it didn’t lead to thousands of layoffs in a short time period like the music industry’s transition or the newspaper industry’s transition.
We also publish non-commodity information, generally. In addition, since science and scholarship are better if not judged as popularity contests, low-usage titles need support. They may generate the next breakthrough we all need in energy or health. For most of the others we compare ourselves to, low-usage signals a problem. For us, we need to keep these shoots growing.
Not only are we a unique and interesting type of professional publishing, we’re vitally important to high-end knowledge generation and may rightly claim to have navigated the digital waters better than most information industries. But we can’t relax. It seems to have served us well to be a bit anxious.
Rick Anderson: Different people have different misconceptions, obviously. The one that I hear most frequently in my line of work, and that I think is the “biggest” in terms of the distorted view it helps to perpetuate about scholarly publishing, is the idea that scholarly authors generally care first and foremost about reaching the broadest possible readership. This is demonstrably untrue, since authors eagerly, constantly, and in growing numbers compete with each other to place their work in publications that have limited audiences and that only grant access to those who pay for it. Authors who care primarily about reaching the largest possible number of readers would never think of publishing in formal journals — they would put their work online and place it in the public domain (which can be done easily and instantly by applying a CC0 waiver). The fact that they don’t typically do this — that instead, they deliberately place their work behind paywalls — indicates that their primary goal is something other than broad readership. Importantly, it also suggests that outreach and evangelism efforts towards authors that focus on helping them reach the largest possible readership are putting the cart before the horse. First you need to understand what authors actually want, and if you find that they don’t want the things you believe they should, then you need to start by helping them to see the desirability of what you think they should want. (And of course, if you fail in that attempt, there are always mandates.)
David Smith: People. Not just scholars. It’s tempting, VERY tempting to talk about how scholars seem (in general, not the small numbers that publishers heavily interact with) to not fully grasp the complexity of the ecosystem in which they operate, attributing power and capabilities to publishers that do not exist in reality; not perceiving the things that publishers enable or facilitate. We should take a long hard look at why this is so (TL:DR we collectively suck at PR).
But there’s a bigger and far more important misconception. Scholarly Publishing is about the artefacts of research; the advances, the breakthroughs, and the mis-steps along the way. The fact is that people overwhelmingly do not realize that research outputs are mostly incremental, variably definitive, and subject to refinement and revision and refutation as more information comes in. People all too often think that research is spurious or irrelevant to day-to-day concerns. And this enables narratives that are very damaging to humanity. The vaccine controversy; Climate change; Whether “it” causes or cures cancer; Makes you fat; causes health problems, the list goes on. I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. But we need to work hard to counter this, to enable people to better understand the power of the scientific method.
Alice Meadows: The biggest misconception people outside of our world have about scholarly publishing is that it’s boring. Nothing could be further from the truth! Frustrating, depressing, annoying? Yes, but only sometimes. Fun, thought-provoking, inspiring? More often than you’d think. But boring? Almost never… Despite it apparently being a Chinese curse, I think we are lucky to live in such interesting times. Our industry has changed almost beyond recognition since I started in scholarly publishing — thankfully, since it probably was a bit boring back then!
For people in scholarly publishing — and in scholarly communications more broadly — I think there’s a misconception that our community is irreconciliably divided. Given the sometimes polarized and polarizing differences of opinion between a few loud voices on a few key issues (open access, publisher profits, embargoes, etc) — including on The Scholarly Kitchen at times — it’s easy to see why people perceive us this way. And sometimes it feels like they’re right. But in my experience the vast majority of librarians, publishers, associations, and others who work in scholarly publishing are well-informed, dedicated, and collegial. Some may hold strong, and sometimes strongly opposing, views but we all share a common purpose — to serve the research community. Our differences may make for interesting and sometimes frustrating debate, but ultimately most of us have more in common than you might think at first glance.
Michael Clarke: The biggest misconception that people have about scholarly publishing is that it is (perennially) on the verge of being “disrupted.” STM and scholarly publishers, you see, don’t understand the internet, despite being among the first media producers there. They don’t understand the way the Internet works, despite being among the first to actually figure out how to make money online, developing a site license for content as early as 1998 (site licenses existed for software but to my knowledge no one had then applied the concept to publications). They are dinosaurs, despite having developed sophisticated digital platforms with standardized and interoperable metadata (DOIs, ISNIs, ORCIDs). Despite this, scholarly publishers (who have been digital first since before the New York Times even knew enough to know that it wasn’t) are characterized by news and tech media as hopeless brontosauri with their tails caught in a tar pit as the meteor approaches. I guess if you predict a meteor strike long enough you are eventually bound to be right. But in this instance, I’ll short the meteor and go long on the sauropods.
Phill Jones: No doubt, some of the other chefs will point out that in much of the debates around publishing, access and its associated costs, there’s an assumption among some people that things like organizing peer review and globally distributing content via the internet costs either nothing or very little to do. That’s a fairly obvious area of misunderstanding but I think a more fundamental area of confusion (one that perhaps at least partially responsible for the frustration) is the definition of the word ‘publisher’ itself. Commercial publishers, learned societies, and university presses have a lot in common, but they also have significant differences in terms of both form and function. This conflation of multiple types of businesses under the single term leads to enormous amounts of confusion in discussions surrounding scholarly publishing reform.
For example, there is a persistent misapprehension that large commercial publishers want to maintain the subscription business model for it’s own sake. The reality is that commercial publishers have been experimenting fairly aggressively with open access for some time now. After all, as large businesses with lots of products, they can afford to experiment. From where I’m sitting, the biggest roadblock for open access today is the concern that learned societies (who often publish only one or two journals) have of losing the revenue source that pays for all the conferences, travel grants and summer schools that the society provides.
Angela Cochran: I think the biggest misconception is that peer review is free or cheap because the editors and reviewers are volunteers. At a time when journals are receiving more and more submissions, peer review management is actually getting more expensive. When I talk about managing peer review I am including journal management/editorial board management too because apparently those outside of an editorial office don’t see that expense either. That’s okay because we are supposed to be invisible.
Peer review management involves systems that are huge and complex. The more journals you have the more work it requires. These systems are not free to use and it’s important to note that rejected papers carry an expense in cost but also staff and editor time. In addition to the systems, which have certainly made peer review management much more efficient, there are also staff peer review coordinators that assist the editors in keeping papers moving through the system. These staff members also QC papers and field questions from authors, reviewers, and editors.
Added “recently” to the job of journal editorial departments are CrossCheck reports (which are not free) and the enormous amount of time spent on ethical issues and investigations. One of my staff members spends about 15% of her time reading technical papers against similar papers and highlighting where they overlap. Two other staff members spend about 25% of their time investigating, emailing authors, and discussing ethics issues and their resolution with editors.
Lastly, even volunteer editors are often provided either an honorarium or in our case at ASCE, a small amount for administrative support so they can have an on-site administrator help with their workload. We also pay for travel to editorial board meetings and editor workshops.
There is more (for the sake of saving space here, I may elaborate more in a separate post), but the bottom line is that peer review is not free. Yes the reviewers are volunteers but systems and staff are required to ensure that things go as well as possible.
Karin Wulf: Among my peers, humanities scholars, the biggest misconception about scholarly publishing is that journal publishing could be or should be “free.” Despite lots of experience with peer reviewing, even with editing, there is still a lack of understanding about the expenses and revenue associated with producing journals. One source of the confusion is surely that so many journals are now tucked into larger university presses and so the actual costs of any particular journal’s production can be a bit hard to distinguish. But a larger source of confusion is the notion that so much of journal labor production is already “free.” Peer reviewers do not get paid by the journal, and many faculty editors are “paid” for their service by their university administration through course releases or a stipend. The costs of copyediting, typesetting, proofing, preparing for online as well as print, and then printing are hidden when most readers view a journal online and that labor and skill seems to require little more than what it takes me to type this up on my laptop. And the drumbeat about skyrocketing journal pricing makes even a much-less-than-break even journal like the one my institute publishes seem like gougers. I have written about this, spoken about it, offered careful analyses and yet still I hear this very regularly even from people who have heard me and others discuss it before.
Ann Michael: Some observations. I’ll try not to get too philosophical, but I’m not making any promises.
- From reading this post, reading many of the comments that occur on this blog and others, seeing some of the conversations that are happening as part of the Open Scholarship Initiative as well as other list serves and private email communication channels, and generally listening to presentations at a variety of conferences and closed meetings, it seems as though many of us are guilty of evaluating the entire elephant (to go back to Joe’s metaphor) from our perspective standing 2 inches away from it. It’s bigger than it looks and has more moving parts than any one of us can see. From our view, it is difficult for any of us to understand another’s perspective of the same beast, let alone derive any bigger “truths” if we don’t share information and work together.
- We tend to describe “scholarly publishing” with one broad brush. We over simplify our points and descriptions, causing the issues and facts to blur. What’s true in one discipline may not be true in another. So people can have legitimately differing yet perfectly justifiable positions because they are talking about different parts of the beast. What’s worse, the elephant doesn’t represent scholarly publishing. Scholarly publishing is more like all pachyderms (some are elephants, rhinos, hippos, etc.). So some of us aren’t even looking at an elephant!
- Scholarly publishing is important. It impacts researchers, scientists, clinicians, patients, populations, and individuals. Because of its importance, discussions get emotional and sometimes those emotions get in the way of logical, analytical, and productive discourse. Emotion does have a place in the discussion, but it would be wonderful if it weren’t the first place we went.
- And finally, the loudest voices tend to be those at opposite ends of the spectrum. The opposite ends are useful in determining the scope of the issues we need to resolve. However, they often silence the middle. Sometimes this is because those interested in compromise or those that see value in opinions that differ from their colleagues are intimidated (they don’t want to get slammed by #3 above). It may be because any position that does not represent one of the polar opposites is immediately discarded and sometimes considered sacrilege by both sides. Not jumping in may not be because of fear or cowardice, it could be the result of simple math. We all need to pick the hill we’re willing to die on, don’t we?
Now it’s your turn. What do YOU believe is the biggest misconception people have about scholarly publishing?
Speak your mind – and be nice🙂