October 20, 2017

Let Me Count the Ways | Peer to Peer Review

Recently I was talking with a Duke faculty member and editor of a prominent scholarly journal about ways to improve access to the journal he edits. In the midst of the conversation, I found myself being lectured on the need to get scholarly publishing out from under the control of commercial publishing firms. What were libraries going to do, I was asked, to break the stranglehold that commercial publishing had over scholarship? Fortunately I had some answers for him, and a great deal of sympathy for his perspective. But it was very odd to have the tables turned on me like that; I am usually the advocate for open access and new models of scholarly communications, so it was strange to be treated, even briefly, as a defender of the status quo.

This conversation got me thinking about the so-called crisis in scholarly communications. For many years libraries have talked about a crisis related to journal prices. But that was always our problem, and it didn’t really capture the hearts or the imaginations of the scholars who actually produce the materials that publishers publish. In the last few years, however, many of those formerly complacent authors have been radicalized; the demands for change are no longer coming just from, or even predominantly from, libraries. Indeed, libraries are being challenged to keep up with the new needs and desires of the scholars we serve.

So what has changed? Of course, the increasing popularity of a whole variety of forms of digital scholarship is part of the answer. But three recent events and publications have me made more deeply aware of something I think scholarly authors are also beginning to discover—that the traditional commercial publishing model is actively harmful to the interests of good scholarship. Not just failing to keep up with changing conditions, but lagging behind in ways that threaten the quality and integrity of the scholarly enterprise itself. Let’s review some of those ways.

One area where commercial publishing is proving to be harmful to scholarship is copyright law. In the recent Supreme Court case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley, Inc., publisher Wiley was seeking to exploit a linguistic oddity in the U.S. copyright law to gain for itself a level of control over the products that it sells that no other retailer is entitled to, and that Congress clearly never envisioned. The quirk was the result of different provisions in the law that were changed over time without adequate attention to how they might interrelate, and Wiley decided to try to exploit that lapse and “shoot the moon.” The Supreme Court did not buy it, fortunately, but it is important to recognize the potentially negative consequences for scholarship if Wiley had succeeded. The result would inevitably have been less access to international scholarship for our campuses. Libraries would be less able to buy and lend materials from overseas, so scholarship would have been shortchanged. Here, as in other recent court cases, we have seen commercial academic publishers show a willingness to hamstring scholarship in order to generate more profits for existing books and articles. Such attempts look to short-term profits over the longer view that what is good for scholarship—what facilitates more creative research—is ultimately good for the whole scholarly community. But it seems increasingly to be the case that these commercial academic publishers no longer see themselves as part of the academic community but as, instead, its adversaries.

Another related piece of evidence about the harmful effect of commercial publishing on scholarship can be found in the recent decision of the entire editorial board of a Taylor & Francis journal, the Journal of Library Administration, to resign in protest over the rigid position Taylor & Francis takes toward the rights, or lack thereof, of its scholarly authors. Several years ago, I advised a professorial friend about an article he had submitted to that same journal. He was unwilling to accept the draconian terms that were being offered, and our attempts at negotiation were completely unavailing. He decided to withdraw the article, and it is clear that many others before and since have made the same decision. It finally became too much for the editorial board, which realized that it could not produce the quality product it wanted if authors kept walking away because of the unacceptable publishing terms.

What is important to realize here is that Taylor & Francis was not interfering in the board’s independence or its editorial judgment, but it was still compromising the quality of the journal because of its business practices. Academic authors are simply no longer willing to give up the opportunities offered by the digital environment to share their work, improve their impact on their discipline, and engage in new modes of collaboration and communication, simply in exchange for limited publication in a long-standing journal title. Scholars want flexibility and control, and those who evaluate scholars are increasingly understanding of and sympathetic to that desire, and to the resultant unwillingness to trade their own best interests for a journal trademark. More and more, publishers who insist on inflexible policies that assert that an author has no meaningful rights in their own work after publication simply will not be able to publish quality products.

By the way, one can see this struggle continuing as authors in the U.K. debate with this same publisher, Taylor & Francis, about whether or not they will be able to publish in T&F journals and still comply with the public access mandate now in place for all researchers funded by the U.K. Research Councils. The author’s rights quagmire with commercial publishers seems to grow deeper all the time, and it is an obstacle to efforts to improve the quality and accountability of scholarship.

Finally, there is a 2013 article I read recently called “Deep Impact: Unintended consequences of journal rank,” which reviews a great deal of data-intensive literature about journal ranking and impact factors. The conclusions that the authors, who are scientists in the U.K. and Germany, draw from this data are various, and very troubling. As I say, a great deal of data is discussed in the article, and it is worth a full read. But here are the basic points I took from it that strengthen the impression that commercial publication—publication that is evaluated based on journal impact factor—is harmful to scholarship (the paper focuses on science, so I will switch to that term). First, there is a growing rate of retractions, and especially retractions based on scientific misconduct, in the scientific literature. Second, those retraction rates correlate with the impact factor of a journal; journals with higher impact factors have a higher rate of retractions. Third, an explanation of this correlation can be found in the phenomenon of “publication bias.” By this latter term, we mean the increasing unreliability of published findings in general, and specifically the tendency of higher ranking journals to prefer articles that show very “strong effects.”

The simple and obvious (after it is pointed out) fact is that journals prefer articles that “make a splash” because they announce startling and dramatic new findings. That preference results from a desire for a higher impact factor, and it is successful in obtaining such rankings. But it also means that the articles are less likely to be reliable; later studies often show much weaker effects, which are probably more reliable, but are less likely to be accepted in highly-ranked journals (if those journals want to stay so highly ranked). And in a troubling number of cases, those strong effects turn out to be the result of sloppy research or even scientific misconduct, leading to retractions. Here is an explanation of the correlation between impact factor and retraction rate, and it reflects poorly on the effect of impact factor, journal rankings, and commercial competition on scholarship as an enterprise. What we see is that the logical, understandable business practices of commercial firms that are competing to sell a product result in degraded scholarship when that product is also the primary venue for communicating scientific research.

At the end of “Deep Impact,” the authors discuss alternative models that would better serve the needs of scientific research and scholarship in general. The suggestion they finally settle on is essentially what we have recently been calling “library publishing:”

We therefore would favor bringing scholarly communications back to the research
institutions in an archival publication system in which software, raw data, and
their text descriptions are archived and made accessible, after peer-review and with scientifically-tested metrics accruing reputation in a constantly improving system…
Funds currently spent on journal subscripts (sic) could easily suffice to finance the initial
conversion of scholarly communications, even if only as long-term savings.”

This is a significant challenge for academic libraries. The recent launch of the Library Publishing Coalition is one indication amongst many that the library community is seriously considering how to meet the challenge. But since the quality and integrity of scholarship seem to depend on it, and our researchers and authors are becoming ever more aware of the need, it offers perhaps our best chance to demonstrate once again that libraries are indispensable partners in the research enterprise.

Kevin L. Smith About Kevin L. Smith

As Duke University’s first Director of Scholarly Communications, Kevin Smith’s (kevin.l.smith@duke.edu) principal role is to teach and advise faculty, administrators and students about copyright,intellectual property licensing and scholarly publishing. He is a librarian and an attorney (admitted to the bar in Ohio and North Carolina) and also holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University. Smith serves on Duke’s Intellectual Property Board, Digital Futures Task Force and Open Access Advisory Panel. He is also currently the vice chair of the ACRL’s Scholarly Communications Committee. His highly-regarded blog on scholarly communications discusses copyright and publication in academia, and he is a frequent speaker on those topics.

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  1. Mark Wood says:

    Well, it never was publishers’ job to care about the long-term health of the academic community; it was, and is, ours. It is businessmen’s job to care about the performance of the business, and they can get in trouble if they don’t. It’s the tension between the two groups that optimizes returns on investments (and the time and talent that academics spend on their pursuit of knowledge is a large and worthwhile investment). We need to keep an eye on them and challenge them regularly — they certainly do that to us.

    But…”what are libraries going to do about it?” Really? We’ve been installing the tools scholars need to take back control of academic publishing, and begging authors to use them. This sounds to me like a case of natural allies locked in violent agreement, needing merely to understand one another a little better in order to exploit a common interest.