Friday, June 17, 2011

Innovation Thwarted: The Publication Bottleneck

By Keith McDowell

Are you one of those Americans who believe that healing in a specific individual can occur through intervention by the prayers of a large body of people intent on that fixed goal? Many believe in the power of mass prayer, but most consider it a matter of faith and “not science.” And if you were the fictional character, Katherine Solomon, in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, where and how would you publish your earth-shattering new discoveries in noetic science, whether real or imagined?

But let’s be more specific. Do you believe that a positive personal attitude and a strong desire to live can overcome cancer or put it into remission – a variant of the placebo effect? How about other diseases or bodily ailments? And if you believe this, how would you prove it and could you get your findings published? Are we still in the realm of “not science?”

Even more specific, do you believe in reprogramming the human brain by making use of brain plasticity to overcome bodily ailments? Oops, wait a minute! Brain plasticity is “real” science and a proven fact. The brain can be rewired. But how far and to what purpose? Where is the dividing line between “science” and “not science?” Even more important for innovation, who decides what and how “scientific” discoveries and new knowledge are published. Who gets access to that published knowledge – no matter how important or funky in the eyes of the beholder?

Amazingly, most people believe that the American research and development (R&D) publication system is perfectly fine, although innovation pundits often bemoan the putative decline recently in the percentage of publications by American authors. Indeed, why would people think otherwise? By all accounts and measures the publication system has been enormously successful in making America the world R&D leader and the center of innovation for decades.

But the reality in my opinion and that of many others is that the American R&D publication system so successful in the twentieth century is a dinosaur that is ponderously slow, built on a business model from the era of vinyl records, very expensive to the point of breaking the budgets of university libraries, mostly inaccessible to anyone not a paying member of the R&D club, and an enormous waste of time and effort for researchers. In short, it sucks and it chokes innovation! But how did we get to this state and what can we do about it? And is there a new paradigm available to us for the twenty-first century?

First, a comment about digital electronic media versus the print medium is in order. No one doubts that society as we know it has been transformed in the past few decades to a new digital and information age. No one doubts that the print medium is rapidly fading into a niche market with newspapers going online and ebooks outselling hard-cover books. Although slow to embrace the change, the research publication system also “went digital” with online journals and CDs arriving periodically in the snail mail. In essence the same business model was used, but in a digital format.

Of course, cracks appeared in the model as experiments such as ArXiv at Cornell were undertaken. The biggest crack came from various attempts to create systems of “open access” to research publications such as the PLOS family of journals or the requirement by Congress that publications based on research funded by the National Institutes of Health be posted and freely available following an embargo period. The notion is that federally-funded research should be accessible to anyone, not just those who can afford to pay the heavy price for journals or who have access to journals as a member of a club, taken to mean universities or businesses.

All such endeavors to reform the publication system are worthy, but are effectively incremental in nature – not transformative. They speak mostly to the issue of access in the digital age. But to approach a true transformation of the publication system, one must understand the full scope of how the publication system works. And we begin by asking the question: why do we have research journals? Here are my thoughts with some analysis as to how each feature plays out in the digital age.

Communication: It goes without saying that researchers and scholars want to “publish” their work and print journals were historically the principal method, although books also played a major role as well as newspapers. Today, we have blogs, tweets, social media, cable TV, “open laboratory notebooks,” and a growing list of means to communicate.

Community: Historically, print journals permitted the formation of discipline-driven communities or tribes and indirectly produced a de facto partitioned search process to find specific material. If a scholar wanted to understand the “physics” of a particular process, you searched “physics journals” for relevant information. Unfortunately, the explosion of research publications and the breakdown of silos driven by convergence and trans-disciplinary modern research have made the concept of a “journal” problematic.

Claim: You can’t win the Nobel Prize or win the intellectual property (IP) royalty sweepstakes without staking a claim to your discoveries, findings, or data. Publication is the essential method of choice, taking account of the requirements of the patent process. Of course, there are issues with who owns the IP – taken broadly to include ideas and discoveries – as well as proprietary issues, trade secret issues, national security or classified material issues, and so forth.

Standards: Quality is an essential factor, whether in the scientific methodologies used or the presentation of the material.

Prestige: Journals pride themselves on being the best of breed, no matter that the “rules” for establishing the pecking order are arcane. Authors crow about having their articles published in the “best of the best.” Tenure and promotion committees make a fetish out of counting articles in prestige journals. So what has all this chest beating and hoopla have to do with the publication system? In my opinion, it’s at the core of why we haven’t transformed the publication system. It’s a final vestige of power by the good ole boy network of “clubs.”

Archive: The print medium cataloged by journal has been the longstanding method of archiving publications over the span of generations and even centuries. But in the past few decades, the sheer volume of journal space has overwhelmed libraries and led to the creation of tightly compacted, offsite storage centers.

Authentication: Ultimately, journals through the process of peer review of articles or at the whim of the editor serve as gatekeepers to keep “not science” or “bad science” from being published. Similar arguments are made in the liberal arts and other non-science fields with the qualifiers “not scholarly” or “bad scholarship.” Realistically, the peer-review system only weakly accomplishes these goals and instead has become an enormous sinkhole of time and effort by researchers taking precious time away from being innovators.

Evaluation: Quite frankly, the journal peer review system has become a major tool for evaluating the performance of researchers and scholars – particularly in the university tenure and promotion system. It’s a surrogate system permitting tenure and promotion committee members to default to the judgment of journal peer reviewers and thereby avoid the task of actually reading their colleagues scholarly works. Who can blame them given the job description for the modern faculty member?

Armed with this background on the current journal-driven publication system, we ask: must we use the centuries-old publisher model because the print medium was traditionally the only way and they have the resources to do it? Of course not! And I’m not talking about simply “going digital.” I’m talking about a radical transformation. Here is my proposal for an “open publication and access system” taken from the perspective of an author. I use herein the phrase “online journal” lightly recognizing that the concept is most likely going to disappear in the future and be replaced by an “online publishing service.” I also ignore the cost issue for the moment.

Credentialing and authentication of author(s) and reviewer(s): All people desiring to publish articles in an online journal or serve as reviewers should go through a credentialing process. There are many ways that credentialing can be accomplished similar to what we already do on the Internet to figure out whether someone is who they say they are. Professional societies or universities could easily set up a credentialing process. I don’t envision a system with any real differences from the one we already have in place that permits someone to publish in a journal. Once credentialed with an online journal, the author or reviewer would be provided with an authentication system that permits login to the journal.

Prepare electronic article: The essential issue for the manuscript is quality through conformity to style and format. Universities and scholarly societies should get together our best minds on style, punctuation, and whatever else we need – including figures, tables, and graphics – and set the rules for the format of all research articles, allowing for several possible styles. There is no need to persecute authors with over 2,000 varieties of endnote styles just so each proprietary journal can have its own “feel.”

Validate standard format: Once we produce a set of standards for style and format, universities – meaning their faculty members – agree to abide by the standards and demand that all publishing adopt the standards. We don’t have to play by someone else’s rules. Guess what! New startup businesses could emerge such as internet “editing” companies that check conformity to the standard for a small fee. Quality, as measured by conformity to simple publishing standards, will be protected.

Post “draft” to open access, online journal: The credentialed author would next post the electronic draft of the manuscript to the online journal. All articles would be formatted in a manner to permit search engines to find them, including lists of keywords and other such attributes. At this point, no peer review has occurred and only two criteria have been met: a credentialed author and a standard format.

Open peer review of a draft article: Once an article is posted on the online journal, credentialed users of the journal would comment on the article using a comment-type system as found in blogs, but with full disclosure of the identity of the reviewer. Reviewers could also contact authors directly with comments or suggestions. Reviewing would be a voluntary, self-selecting, participatory process. Researchers would only read and comment on the articles that interest them. The online journal would maintain statistics on all the hits, downloads, and other activity related to the draft article. After a period of time, probably six months, the author(s) would prepare a final version of the article.

Revise and post “final” version: Following the review period, the author(s) would post the final version of the article. Commentary or blogging on the article would continue.

The “open publication – open access” system that I propose has several issues that need to be addressed. First is the question of who manages the online, open access journal or service? I don’t think it matters whether it’s done by private business, professional societies, or universities. The journal is simply a gateway not unlike other social media and should be managed in that manner. The author is responsible for the content.

Second is the question of who serves as the archivist? In my opinion universities must regain the upper hand as archivists for the research publications of their employees, mainly faculty members. We can debate whether and how the copyrights to research publications should remain the intellectual property of the university or the author(s), but it should remain with one or the other with the condition that the university is permitted to post the article on the web and is responsible for archiving the article. Again, I foresee the growth of startup internet companies whose role is to service the needs of university libraries to store and archive articles. Archiving is a major issue for the whole of the digital age. I have no doubt that solutions will emerge. Transformation of the publication system should not be held hostage to the problem.

Finally, who pays! Somebody pays. No publication system can sustain itself without someone paying for editors who validate format, for server farms that host the online journal, or for the required staffing at the Internet gateway. Personally, I see opportunities for entrepreneurs to move into this arena. Facebook, YouTube, and Google already have the resources and expertise to make the system function.

The true success of a research publication is not whether it passes through numerous gatekeepers or conforms to accepted standards. Success directly correlates with the content of the publication and the ability to replicate or authenticate the content. Success correlates with the impact of the content, even if wrong. Bad ideas often lead to the right ideas. Certainly bad science will get published, but have you read the research journals lately? The bright line between science and not-science is in no danger from my proposal. And so what if some junk science slips in? Bad ideas and crazy research will die of their own weight as they always have. We are in no danger here. We don’t need a gatekeeper, authoritarian system to weed it out through the massive review system that we currently have. That system is too expensive and takes too much time and effort with very little to show for it.

What about proper evaluation of faculty performance? Is it really necessary for us to have the current peer review publication system to serve as a surrogate for the functioning of tenure and promotion committees? If we free up the escalating time spent reviewing articles for publication that we’re not very interested in, we might actually have time to take a look at the publications of our fellow faculty members! That would be a good thing.

So, let’s agree that my system or some modification will satisfy the basic requirements of a publication system. What are its advantages? There are many. It removes unnecessary gatekeeping and vastly speeds up the “time to market” of research. It provides much needed open access. Ultimately, I believe it will reduce the enormous cost of journal subscriptions for university libraries. The world has changed and publishing is not the same anymore. Universities and their faculty need to take back that which is important to them – control of the dissemination of their research. The electronic information age provides us the means to do it – if only we give a little and rethink the gatekeeper mentality through open peer review. When we get used to the system, it will provide the same level of bright line for science versus not-science and about the same level of quality in content. We are the responsible party. We can and must make this transformation.

How will these changes affect the innovation ecosystem? They will reduce the workload of faculty and increase time spent on education of the workforce and on research. Open access to research speaks for itself as an accelerator of innovation. New startup internet companies will emerge to carry out the functional tasks of servicing the new publication system. As mentioned, I foresee “editing” companies and various forms of “cloud computing” through provision of servers and hardware. Credentialing and authentication systems will emerge. In essence we will disassemble the current publication system and put it back together through functionality as opposed to a single provider.

Will this open publication and open access R&D publication system work? Emphatically yes! It’s inevitable and it’s time to the transformation.

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