Google has been changing a great deal over the past few years — creating a parent company (Alphabet), changing its motto from “Don’t be evil” to “Do the right thing” (apparently without consulting Spike Lee), and carving off Waymo as its autonomous vehicle company. With revenues of more than $100 billion in 2017 and a valuation of more than $700 billion, Google has money to play with, a lot of talented employees, and tons of information about the world.

Google has also established the Google Brain Team, their dedicated AI group with the slogan, “Make machines intelligent. Improve people’s lives.” (Are they promising that? Or are they telling me to do that? I’m happy to do the latter, but not the former. Or perhaps AI [and Google’s marketing team] has a long way to go in the subtleties of rhetoric and punctuation.)

big shoes to fill

An initiative emanating out of Google Brain with the participation of YC Research, DeepMind, and OpenAI is the publication of what appears to be a “house” journal called Distill, which is ostensibly published by the Distill Working Group. Where this working group resides isn’t clear.

Distill is positioned as a research journal, claims to be peer-reviewed, and is indexed in Google Scholar. Their archival strategy consists of backups and the Internet Archive, but they claim they are thinking about adding LOCKSS to their archiving approach. They also use the fact that it has an ISSN to claim that it is registered with the Library of Congress, as if this grants some authority to their work rather than simply denoting a clerical step thousands of journals and magazines routinely complete. A more fulsome description of Distill reads:

Distill is an academic journal in the area of Machine Learning. The distinguishing trait of a Distill article is outstanding communication and a dedication to human understanding. Distill articles often, but not always, use interactive media.

One good test for whether your article is a fit for Distill is whether your collaborators and you are willing to put in whatever time is necessary to write and illustrate an outstanding article. In our experience, this often takes 100+ hours. Typically, we expect this to mean that there is at least one collaborator who is very enthusiastic about explaining things well.

Distill denotes issues by year and month, so its first issue published in September 2016 is Volume 1, Issue 9. Other issues follow this pattern of relative year followed by actual month of publication. It’s odd that the first paper is dated September 2016, while Distill was “announced” via a blog post on the Google AI Blog in March 2017. Michael Nielsen of Y Combinator, who serves as an advisor to Distill, announced it on the Y Combinator blog on the same day, as did OpenAI via their blog.

So far, there have been seven papers published, two commentaries, and one visualization. Only one paper has been published this year. Four were published in the final three months of 2016, five more in all of 2017, and so far only one in 2018. Momentum is not growing for Distill.

Most of the 10 articles were written by Google employees. Of the 26 authors who have published, 21 were Google employees (16 from Google Brain, three from Google Cloud, and two from other parts of Google). Only five authors were non-Google employees, with one of these (Michael Nielsen of Y Combinator, which is the parent of YC Research, a participating organization behind Distill) serving on the Distill advisory board. If this strikes you as incestuous, it gets better.

A total of 12 of the 26 authors in Distill have been editors of the journal (six articles were co-authored by Chris Olah, five by Shan Carter, and one by Arvind Satyanarayan), all of whom work at Google Brain as well. Arvind Satyanarayan became an editor at Distill in May 2018, two months after his paper was published there. He has been at Google Brain since 2017.

Yet, in a story about the launch, Olah and Carter claim “Distill is an independent organization,” a claim that seems to lack basis as there seems to be no record of it or the Distill Working Group as an independent entity with its own taxpayer ID or similar filings of establishment. The name “Distill Working Group” itself suggests it is exists within some other entity, with the most likely candidate being Google. In requests by others online for explanations and transparency, there is still no clear accounting of the exact relationship of Google to Distill and the Distill Working Group.

Review is done via GitHub issues, and then the repository is published when the paper is published.

Distill has some interesting aspects to it, most notably that review is done via GitHub issues, and then the repository is published when the paper is published. Given the recent announcement that Microsoft will acquire GitHub, it’s possible this might change. Regardless, it’s an intriguing way to conduct peer review. They appear to be revising their approach to peer review, posting a form online and tweeting an invitation to evaluate it. After three weeks, very few comments have been made.

In addition to providing a publication venue, Distill also has an annual awards system, where the authors of the best papers receive prize money based on evaluations from the advisory board. However, with nearly 50% of the authors serving as editors, it’s not clear how this could work in actuality. The initial prize was supposed to be awarded out of a prize endowment of $125,000 as of January 1, 2018, but no announcement has been made about any prize selection or award.

The shadow of Google over Distill can’t be missed, especially with the editors and most authors working at Google-related companies. The domain is owned by Google, as well. One author even referred to it recently as “Google Distill” in a laudatory blog post.

The exact motivation for creating this journal remains unclear. There is no shortage of journals dealing with machine learning and AI, published by organizations including IEEE, Elsevier, Wiley, SpringerNature, MIT Press, and ACM. In order to find out, I emailed the editors and an advisory board member, but none responded, another possible sign that they’ve lost their enthusiasm for the project. It’s tempting to write off Distill as a corporate vanity journal, despite some interesting elements.

But the corporation in this case matters, and that might explain why, despite plenty of involvement and circumstantial evidence, is Google making no claim for Distill. To embrace the journal and acknowledge its parentage could make Google a media company rather than a platform, opening them up to the kinds of liabilities publishers typically deal with. Google has been accused of being a publisher before, and has sought to dismiss this perception because it could be costly to them in a number of ways — liabilities, requirements, and oversight being just the first three that come to mind. We should expect Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others to continue their efforts to avoid being labeled media companies, a position that NYU professor Scott Galloway called out in an interview with Kara Swisher via her excellent Recode Decode podcast:

“We’re a platform, not a media company.” No you’re not. You run content, you run advertising against it. Boom, congratulations, you’re a media company. You have some onus of the wonderful things that come along with being a media company, including 90 percent gross margins, influence of unbelievable magnitude, but there is a level of responsibility and, wow, have they let us down.

Is Distill an academic research journal? In certain respects, yes. Are there conflicts of interest in its authorship, editorship, and ownership elements? It looks like it, which means the answer is yes. Is Google now a media company? Many would assert, myself included, that it has been for a long time and is skating by on a technicality perpetuated by out-of-touch regulators and legislators in the US.

It makes sense that a journal like this might emerge where there is a critical mass of AI professionals at work. However, to do it traditionally and with more legitimacy, Distill would be well-served by extracting itself from the company where its editors work, which would allow this potentially interesting journal to publish in a more legitimate and wide-ranging manner. It would also make it look less like a pet project and more like something worth our attention. Adding an editorial board, a management layer, and more of the things publishers do would only help if they are serious about having a true academic journal.

Of course, it should not be lost on us that the traditional mechanisms of publishing — indexing in ISI and MEDLINE, registration with the Library of Congress for an ISSN, and so forth — all attain a whiff of obsolescence when Google is doing the publishing. Just indexing a Google journal in Google Scholar might be enough for all practical purposes. With a market position like theirs, why do they need any of our infrastructure? In the photo accompanying this post, when it comes to infrastructure and publishing power, are we the shoes or are we the legs?

On a deeper level than infrastructure and the mechanics of publishing, however, this also demonstrates that valid publishing goes beyond infrastructure or market power. Publishing is not a button. It requires independence from the source for a disinterested evaluation. It requires comparable expertise and systems to extend and manage into related expertise so that valid editorial and peer review can occur. Publishing is not just about bits and bytes, indexing and discovery. In a world of vanity publishing, fake news, cyberwarfare, and propaganda, the more subtle and intangible values encapsulated within a strong and independent publishing system are perhaps more important than ever.

(HT to DS for suggesting this as a topic for a post, and for help getting started.)

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.

View All Posts by Kent Anderson

Discussion

11 Thoughts on "Has Google Become a Journal Publisher?"

Hi Kent

I believe that there are a number of entities that have “house journals”. IBM and Bell Labs come to mind. But then there are journals published within academic institutions, think Social Science Innovation Review out of Stanford and a myriad of journals published in the humanities or published by academic presses. These have been around for quite some time at the “fuzzy” boundaries to which other choice venues exist for scholars/researchers. Then, of course, there are the REAL scholarly journals, perhaps being eschewed for the border lands.

Good point, and I should have included it because it’s illustrative of a few problems with this approach. If this is indeed a Google house journal, it should be labeled as such. The IBM house journal is labeled as an IBM journal (http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/). The same for the Bell Labs journal, when it was published (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/loi/15387305). Google is not being as transparent here, if this is indeed a house journal. Also, IBM and Bell Labs didn’t own major pieces of the publishing infrastructure, nor were the laws about platforms vs. publishers in effect when they began publication mid-20th century.

Google could be transparent about this, if what’s going on is what I and others believe is going on, which is that it is a house journal. But if they were to call it “Google Journal of AI and Machine Learning,” they would then become a publisher, and their legal status as a platform would be compromised. This is a new motivation for smudging the lines.

We are currently trying to help an author with a claim of plagiarism against a tech company house journal. The complete lack of information (ISSNs, contact information, publication dates, etc.) make this nearly impossible to investigate. The journal seems to no longer exist, and no one at the giant tech firms cares to help with this. My preference would be for companies to simply publish industry reports because once they make it look like a journal, there are expectations that it will act like a journal.

Yes, Google is a “journal publisher” and so much more, just as the net has enabled anyone to become a journal publisher. You might as well ask if Google is now a music company, or a video purveyor, and of course they are, just as anyone can become one.

It was once true that the power of the press was reserved for those who owned one. No more.

This is inevitable for all subject to digitization, triumph of medium over message. Better we work to monetize the medium, to compete with faster simpler easier access, to serve as a better gatekeeper. for art, knowledge, culture.

Google won’t admit to being a journal publisher. As I noted in the post, there is much more to publishing than just mechanisms and distribution. It is a cultural act of responsible caretaking, with transparency balanced against privacy and many other factors. Why Google or the editors won’t answer questions about this journal is not a good sign when it comes to abiding by cultural norms we expect of good publishers and media entities.

In the bulk of your comment, it seems you’re asserting that control of the means of distribution grant those who control those means the equivalent roles of those who work on the content that is distributed? I can’t agree with that. Creating content is far different from distributing it. And Google, Facebook, and Twitter bend over backwards to assert that they are not in fact making content choices, when we all know they are. They do this in order to avoid the liabilities of a media company.

There is also a contradiction to what you’re saying, which is that those who owned a press had the power of the press . . . but no more! Instead, now, in this vaunted digital age, those who control the means of distribution have the power, which doesn’t feel like a liberation exactly. In fact, there are many who argue that the laws are upside-down here, as the distributors can behave as media companies without the obligations of media companies. They are monetizing the medium via advertising and data arbitrage using algorithms that not only polarize opinion (because anger and fear yield more clicks), but affect elections and foment genocide halfway around the world. Is that the “better gatekeeper” you envision? For art, for knowledge, for culture? This is a gatekeeper that promulgates vaccine conspiracies, exploits opioid addictions, allows nation-states to steal private information, and creates filter bubbles that perpetuate ignorance. And they make billions without any real liabilities forcing them to behave. This is upside-down. The EU understands this. It’s time we in the US woke up to the fact that our distributors have gone rogue, and are running a major racket without any meaningful accountability.

I suggest you read this post from 2012: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/06/04/were-all-publishers-now-not-so-fast/

You lose me where you falsely suggest I think control of the means “grants” control of the content. I think no such thing. Neither do I think those who own presses have no power, though it is clear access to crowd is equalizing.

Quite the contrary, I believe creators of culture, knowledge, art run great risks when they seek to deliver or distribute digits. Failure to monetize the risk they face is tragic, will lead to real losses absent monetization to suit the times.

Spotify obviates the motive for piracy. It is a better gatekeeper than piratical sites. It offers real value through ease of use, breadth of offer, simple even in making the distinction between streaming and downloading irrelevant. It pays almost three quarters of all its revenues to creators in amounts that generate many many billions.

In addition, I favor network licensing, thinking purely voluntary payment misses the point. Scholarly work can’t be pursued with a tip jar. Networks place scholarship at risk, compensation is the answer.

Digital delivery is a network effect now beyond reach. Our challenge, our responsibility, our mission is to monetize the consequences. Practicing unproven control theory is a check we cannot, will not cash. Nor should we want to continue to do so.

Controlling PDF files is not the future of scholarly expression. It is past time we moved on. In the meantime, we can learn something from those who lost control of MP3 files as we battle over the dying days of PDF files. On this, I suspect, we can wholeheartedly agree.

From here on out, assume everyone is a publisher.

You didn’t read the post I suggested. Not everyone is a publisher, and I guess not everyone is a reader.

Spotify didn’t obviate the motive for piracy. Piracy increased in 2017, for example (https://www.muso.com/magazine/global-piracy-increases-throughout-2017-muso-reveals/).

I don’t know where you get the idea that scholarly publishing is pursued with a tip jar. As a part of the economy, it dwarfs the music industry by 2-3x in annual revenues, which I think is proper as it has more cultural value (I say that as a music lover).

Read the link carefully, simply reject it wholly as fiction. Of course individuals face risk, legal exposure — too many examples to recount, but we can start with those individuals who accused Melania Trump of escort work.

Yes, scholarly publishing is a substantial industry, larger financially than music. Besides, I care more deeply about scholarly publishing than I do music, which cannot hold a candle to cures for cancer or freeing prisoners unjustly accused. Never suggested otherwise. But I did assume this, and insist it true: It has become voluntary to pay. A choice we make.

Not legally, not morally, but in fact it is now voluntary to pay. It is a tip jar we will rely upon without serious adjustment to network economics and monetization.

Perpetuating control theory is like peddling laetrile: Nothing good to show for the effort.

Gatekeepers are under assault even more so than is content, the latter a distraction from what is happening with the former.

Let’s assume, for the moment, Kent’s position. In many ways, all the curating that publishers do and that academic or scholarly journals provide is a controlled path to distributing this knowledge and with that a stamp of legitimacy (hence Elsevier’s momentary slip from grace). For most academics and affiliated institutions it is that “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval, like certification of any product or service that “sells”.

There becomes a point in time for some scholars when they sense the need to get their work out to an audience outweighs seeking such certification. A simple reason is seen when new journals are formed that publish contrarian materials. It also happens when traditional pay walls and increase demand by authors appear to throttle access. And there are others. There are and have been other venues, including, as discussed here, “house” journals where the entity that distributes these has sufficient weight in a community to confer legitimacy, but different from the “gold” standard for academics.

There are moments in time where either standard dogma or content is questioned or the medium for distribution has opened other paths. As with any such shift (dare one says “paradigm”or evoke “disruption”) there is a “free for all” or the wild west of new territory opening up. Kent’s position here and in some of the previous editorials presents an argument for the extant system whereas the arguments by others has a somewhat Humpty Dumpty definitional interpretation.

What is interesting is that the scholarly publishing industry or their members are hedging their bets. On one hand they are adding new features to the current model. This is the same response that industry under disruption has followed. On the other hand, they are developing new options or adapting them to their current environment.

Where this settles and when is yet to be determined.

Comments are closed.