Guest Post by Jean-Claude Guédon: Scholarly Communication and Scholarly Publishing

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This is a guest post by Jean-Claude Guédon, Professeur honoraire, Université de Montréal, Canada


I. Scholarly publishing vs. scholarly communication

In December, I responded to an “Open Post” signed by a diverse group of scholarly publishers: commercial, learned societies, and university presses. Despite differing perspectives and objectives, all the signatories opposed “immediate green OA”. Their unanimity apparently rested on one concept: the “version of record”. 

Invited to contribute something further to this discussion (and I thank OASPA for this opportunity), I propose exploring how scholarly publishing should relate to scholarly communication. Ostensibly aligned, publishing and communication have diverged. Journals and the concept of “version of record” are not only a legacy from print, but their roles have shifted to the point where some processes involved in scholarly publishing are getting in the way of optimal scholarly communication, as the present pandemic amply reveals. Taking full advantage of digital affordances requires moving in different directions. This is an opportunity, not a challenge. Platforms and “record of versions” will eventually supersede journals and their articles, and now is the time to make some fundamental choices.


II. The broad context: knowledge, publishing… and commerce

A. Knowledge

Knowledge radically differs from belief because it cannot rely on external factors of authority such as traditions or alleged divine interventions. Indeed, knowledge production owns no other authority than its own legitimacy, which rests on the transparency of its processes. The only way to produce knowledge is relentlessly to critique previous knowledge through a rigorous method, something like Michael Strevens’ “iron rule of explanation”. Knowledge rests on disbelief, an attitude described since R. K. Merton as “organized skepticism”. Because knowledge is only as good as the critiques it has overcome, it constantly evolves. Fixed knowledge is an oxymoron.

Producing knowledge is a bootstrapping exercise: how can a group of individuals produce a reliable approximation of reality? The answer, obviously, includes Strevens’ “iron rule”and the available means of communication. It also responds to a well-known rule in computer programming: with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. All of these elements make up the “Great Conversation” without which knowledge cannot advance.

B. Publishing

Publishing understood as documents going public includes processes that will differ according to the technologies being used. It seems obvious that scholarly publishing should enable the “Great Conversation” in the best possible way.

C. Financing scholarly print publishing

Copying manuscripts was a service fulfilled at the behest of a few, well-identified, buyers. By contrast, printed documents, like any mass-produced object, must find buyers, in effect a market: they are commodities. New knowledge, however, targets few individuals – a bad recipe for broad markets. This explains why, after Gutenberg, the invention of scholarly journals took two centuries. In the print world, journals eventually evolved and specialized to help distill and disseminate the Great Conversation. The goal was to support and encourage the engagement of competent scholars and their communication needs. To do so, most journals had to be subsidized, which explains the modest and marginal role of commercial scholarly journal publishing until WWII.


III. Commercial scholarly publishing: the perverse use of rankings and competition

Post WWII and commercial opportunities for scholarly publishing

After WWII, commercial publishers found ways to engage in scholarly publishing for profit. The accelerating publishing demands induced by Cold War competition exceeded the possibilities of most learned societies. New interdisciplinary fields were also growing rapidly, and no society journals covered them adequately. Robert Maxwell took notice of the unmet needs and found solutions, but, in so doing, he also changed the nature of scholarly journals.

Robert Maxwell’s strategy rested on three essential points: first, the creation of “international” journals for a worldwide audience; second, the use of English as the default language to facilitate treating the whole world as a single market; third, making libraries the primary journal market. Maxwell was making journals ever more central in the scholarly communication system.  

The new, interdisciplinary fields raised novel indexing issues. Eugene Garfield’s solution was to follow citations across papers. While brilliant, this indexing strategy also led to a number of unforeseen consequences, all the more so that Garfield worked from the perspective of a profit-seeking company. As it was impossible to index every citation in every scientific paper in the world, Garfield proceeded to a radical truncation of the number of journal titles indexed. To justify doing so, he took cover behind Bradford’s law to argue that a thousand “core” journals or so were enough to extract the essential part of world science. Research libraries could now base their journal collection development on Garfield’s “core” set – a result that fitted perfectly with Maxwell’s vision of the journal market. It also explains why he sued Garfield for years in attempting to wrestle the citation index away from him.

Rankings, competition and value

Garfield’s citation-based indexing met with success because, beyond its indexing function, it endowed the “core set” of journals with a new status. By invoking citational behavior rather than reputations, Garfield claimed that his selection of core journals was objective. Thanks to the “impact factor” (IF), he also threaded a path from citation counts to journal evaluation.

The IF allows treating the comparison of journals into strict rankings which look like football league statistics. IFs’ customary three decimals intimate a high degree of precision… but only to avoid ranking two journals equally. More fundamentally, Garfield’s IF anchored research quality to journal titles – an important result for science publishers who, unlike their literary colleagues, do not sell authors: its commercial importance cannot be overstated. For example, in Springer’s failed 2018 IPO, we find the following, rather revealing, admission:

A decrease in the importance of the traditional impact factor would affect the way scholarly communities make their research funding, purchasing, publishing or usage decisions.

The journals’ impact factor allows publishers to seek market shares while arguing their case in terms of excellence, thus apparently serving both their interests and those of researchers. Rankings also help set (and raise) prices: predictably, inequity issues began to be heard in the corridors of research in the late 1980s. Scholars in poorer institutions and countries found themselves increasingly deprived of access to the communication tools of science. As for the journals excluded from the citation contest, they languished in “national” obscurity.

By the 1990s, the morphing of journals into marketable commodities had significantly progressed: ever costlier, they were increasingly divorced from any particular research community to become global markers of an abstract entity: excellence. Excellence is determined by competition, not references to pre-established norms. Journals, therefore, found themselves at the heart of an intense and global competition system ultimately affecting every level of research, from the individual author/researcher to whole countries. Society journals gradually adopted the new commercial pattern: either they entered into deals with commercial publishers, or they adopted their business plan to finance other activities. The deals often involved selling the journal title to the publisher, with difficult consequences down the road. The new business plans meant higher subscription prices for the libraries and, as a result, an expansion of useful activities for societies (but at some expense for public funds).

The transformations in the nature and functions of scholarly journals mark the growing divergence between scholarly publishing and the communication needs of scholarship. Most importantly, the “journal” became strategically central to the new publication regime and its economic framework, and the “version of record”, because it was owned by these journals, became just as essential.


IV. Scholarly publishing in the digital age

A suitable framework for digital scholarly publishing

With the digital age, an opportunity to reform journals, or even move beyond them, now exists. With digital scholarly publishing, it becomes clear that the publishing functions (registration, certification, preservation, dissemination) are no longer necessarily dependent upon a publisher; on the contrary, they can be redistributed among various actors and institutions which are organically linked to the sphere of scholars. 

Three questions now emerge: 

  1. If not legacy publishers, who else can take on publishing functions?
  2. How should publishing functions be organized, and what role(s) can journals play?
  3. How should the reorganized publishing functions be financed?

Redistributing publishing functions

The notion of the “inside-out library” sets the library as the institution that identifies and gathers the research results of its own institution. This means that the library can immediately claim two functions: registration and preservation.

Libraries can organize federated platforms to meet the most immediate needs of dissemination. Academic or university presses can help.

On platforms, post-publication review can begin. This is the business of scholars. Funding agencies, because they manage reviews and selections to allocate and follow grants, can help. So can research institutions that know how to recruit, promote, and reward.

The end result of the redistribution of publishing functions will be to bring them back under the control of research communities, and their values.

Organizing publishing functions: platforms and journals

In the digital world, the central device is not a journal, but a platform. A platform handles three relationships: between individuals and documents, between documents, and between individuals. A platform should be open to both readers and scholarly contributors with no financial barriers. A Platform is the site of open knowledge.

Journals are not inherently necessary on platforms. But if they reflect well-identified research communities, their specific problems, instruments, data and models, they provide an important forum to such communities and their specific conversation. They can help navigate the scholarly archive, but without reference to evaluation. Because elements of a community’s conversation may be of great relevance to another community, even on a distinct platform, no journal should ever own any document, but version provenance is crucial.

Financing the redistributed publishing functions

The present system of scholarly publishing sees money flowing from libraries, universities, research centers, funding agencies and private foundations. A good fraction of these large sums of money cover the profitable side of what has become a large-scale, international business. Re-allocating these funds to public platforms, consequently, makes sense. However, the present research system is tightly held in its present position by an intense competition regime, This leaves very little leeway to many of the actors, from the individual researchers to whole institutions, and even countries. Among these actors, the funding agencies, particularly the private ones, enjoy the greatest degrees of freedom to initiate the reorganization of the scholarly publishing system and to align it with the needs of scholarly communication: in particular, it is diverse, equitable and of high quality (distinguished here from excellence). It responds to the most urgent needs of humanity while broadening the theoretical base of knowledge.


V. Conclusion

The vision adumbrated here rests on the belief that the present scholarly publishing system distorts the communication system that the production of knowledge requires. Treating competition as the fundamental tool of research management is an error: there are circumstances when competition makes sense, as when two or more research teams race to find a solution to a shared problem, but there are many more circumstances where cooperation predominates. Research teams, and their rising importance demonstrate this claim. Also, chasing citations in a limited set of journals does not ensure the freedom needed to raise questions that may be of great urgency in some parts of the world. 

But the most egregious error is to erect journals as the seat of value. For commercial publishers and, to some extent, librarians, this may make some sense, caught as they are in a seller-buyer relationship. However research is much more than business: it is the business of researchers. Research also concerns funding agencies with their research programs, and research institutions with their missions. Each one of these actors would be well advised to reflect on what the present system does to them and their objectives. 

And if funding agencies and universities began to understand that, in the last analysis, their evaluation system amounts to little more than chasing citations, they might reconsider the validity of the whole operation.

Further reading:  

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