Editor’s Note: Today’s post is co-authored by Chef Roger Schonfeld and Dylan Ruediger, Program Manager for the Research Enterprise at ITHAKA S+R.
Researchers write research articles for a primary audience of peer researchers and clinicians. This is not new — and author practice does not appear to be changing, given that it is driven by a strong set of academic incentives. But the actual distribution of these research articles has changed substantially. While once these articles were only readily available in the major research institutions that subscribed to the print journals in which they were published, today these research articles are increasingly distributed online at no expense to access. The result is a steadily growing mismatch between intended audience and actual distribution. This shift, which has been building over time, is insufficiently considered by editors or publishers in their editorial practices or product strategy.
In this piece today, we provide a framework for understanding this mismatch and we discuss some of the challenges that it has fostered. In a subsequent piece, we will review the product landscape intended to bridge parts of this gap.
The Actual Distribution Has Expanded Significantly
The actual distribution of scholarship has expanded in at least two important ways over the past two decades. First, as a result of the reduced marginal costs of digital provisioning over the internet (as compared with traditional print distribution), far more educational and research institutions are able to subscribe to far more publications. Second, as a result of OA and other free access initiatives, a growing share of works of scholarship are now far more widely distributed to the global public, making them available beyond the walls of the academy. This latter effect has changed not only the size but also the nature of the audience.
Policy-makers have very intentionally advanced open access, in particular, with this second objective in mind. Take for example last year’s OSTP policy guidance, the Nelson Memo, which emphasizes many times the importance of free public access, with particular call outs to the rights of taxpayers and access “to the people.” The Nelson Memo actually emphasizes the extent to which even embargoed public access has increased the readership of the scholarly literature as it sets the stage for even greater circulation by eliminating embargoes on publications derived from federally funded research. As funders and policy makers continue to expand public access to scholarship, the mismatch with the intended audience that we discuss in greater detail below could reasonably be seen to be their responsibility.
The Mismatch Is Value Neutral
Ultimately, open access policies and business models and free access initiatives have expanded the distribution of scholarly works dramatically. This may well have resulted in many of the positive benefits foreseen by proponents. Still, the resulting mismatch between intended audience and actual distribution poses real challenges as well. Some of these challenges are not the result of any ill intention.
It can be deeply confusing for even the most well educated non-expert to try to wade through the scholarly literature outside their own field. An illustration can perhaps help. If you or a loved one have grappled with a serious medical condition, perhaps one that could require surgery, over the past decade, undoubtedly a first port of call is Google. Such a search can produce a wealth of hits, including from hospitals trying to market their services. It will also bring up research articles studying the advantages and risks of various forms of mainstream treatments, and alternatives, including small sample reports from the field. These studies are a valuable contribution to the scientific literature as the building blocks for more powerful research studies, meta-analyses, or systematic reviews. But when a patient or their loved one encounters such a study, it can reinforce their own hopes for alternative treatment or produce doubts that are not supported by anything approaching a scientific consensus.
Clearly, the potential confusion of lay readers is no reason to hit the brakes on open access. The answer here is to consider how to provide a substantially expanded audience with access to trustworthy science that is effectively translated for its needs and who should bear responsibility for facilitating this translation.
The Mismatch Can Also Be Exploited
Where there is goodwill, translation services may make a substantial difference. But as widespread academic fraud and other factors increasingly lead to an erosion of public trust in science, the mismatch can create an effective vector for the malicious introduction of misinformation. The vector for the introduction of misinformation is complicated. A misleading or false piece of research is introduced into the scholarly record, perhaps through a preprint service or through a formal publication (sometimes in a predatory journal). Because it is published open access, anyone can read it if they discover it. Then, a public actor, such as a prominent politician, points to that item of research as supporting a point of view they are trying to advance. The false piece of research need not have been placed in coordination with the public actor in order for this vector to be worrisomely effective. While these forms of deceit are not yet endemic, it takes little imagination to recognize their potential for harm.
While publishers cannot control all the factors at play, they are increasingly investing to identify and control fraud, for example through the “integrity hub” initiative, as well as through many investments at individual publishers. It is less clear how and if they can minimize the risk of deliberate misuse of the scholarly record.
Rebuilding trust in the scientific record, and by extension in science itself, will rely on addressing the mismatch between intended audience and actual distribution, which has been largely absent from these discussions and initiatives. To date, what dialogue has taken place typically blames authors, rather than the structure of the system, for the resulting challenges.
For example, there is a steady stream of articles like this one — “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.” And Twitter has brought us ironic gems like this one: “what if paywalls are to protect the public from academic jargon”? But while some observers may mock academics, the actual incentives they respond to are clear. Promotion and tenure standards and professional norms encourage authors to address specialist audiences and can discourage writing in accessible prose. Funders likewise incentivize work that is intended, at most, for an audience of peers. One analysis found that jargon is actually quite helpful in grant applications: “A writing style that is structurally complex with fewer common words, but is written like a story and expresses more scientific certainty, correlates with receiving more money from the NSF.”
Even as the actual distribution of articles is expanding, open access publishers are considering readership and audience comparatively less than they ever have before. They are instead prioritizing authors as a result of the shift to Gold open access business models that many of them are pursuing. One result is that the value of science to the general public is not being emphasized anywhere in the value chain. And trust in science is being pursued as a problem to be solved by addressing shortcomings in research integrity rather than, also, ensuring that high-quality, trustworthy, understandable translations of science is available “to the people.”
So, it is possible that the present mismatch will grow only deeper as a result of the new set of public access policies. That said, there are also a growing number of initiatives interested in translating academic research beyond an audience of peers to something accessible by a wider public. In a follow-up post, we will profile some of these services and ask questions about their place in the scholarly communication system — and their sustainability.