Saturday, April 5, 2014

Publishing survives partly because of our egos

The internet abounds with discussions about how the scientific publishing system as it currently stands is completely ridiculous: somehow, we scientists do all the work, both the blood, sweat and tears of creating the content, then reviewing the content, not to mention writing the reviews, perspectives and news and views, writing the little protocol pieces… and we typically pay for the “privilege”, often directly with page charges on top of institutional subscription fees. It's a tax, and it happens up and down the food chain. Yes, the system is pretty messed up. But a lot of people have already written about that, so I won’t bother writing any more on that point.

Instead, I wanted to point out how some social aspects of how the system maintains itself. Why do we scientists do all this work for free? Yes, partly because of the desire to maintain the scientific enterprise. But I think another big part of it is because of appeals to our ego. And that gets exploited throughout the publishing ecosystem. Who hasn’t had that warm feeling the first time you get asked to review a paper? After that wears off, then the first time you get asked to review a paper at Nature or Science? Or to write a news and views? Or a review article? Or guest edit a paper? Or asked to be on the editorial board? Or to assemble a collection of reviews or protocols? At which point, you probably go out and ask some young investigators to write little pieces for you, and they will probably be honored that you asked them. Note that at none of these stages do I think any of the scientists involved are purposefully trying to take advantage of anyone, at least I hope not. Nor are all the publishers who manage the content, especially the bigger players. But I’m pretty sure at least some of those publishers are. Consider those little reviews that people are always asking you to write. Like a chapter in a review book or encyclopedia or whatever. Typically some (probably well-meaning) senior professor in the field will ask you to write it, and you spend time on it and NOBODY reads it. For the author, it's basically just a chance to add a single citation count to your papers. The only solace is that nobody is wasting their time reading them, at least. So who gains? Certainly science gains very little from this enterprise, I can tell you that. Said senior professor gets to say that they edit this review journal as a line item on their CV, so there’s that. But my guess is the winner is the publisher, who gets to say that they have all this content when negotiating with the universities. There's a whole content industry out there based on scientific fluff, based off of our hard work, and enabled by people appealing to our sense of self-importance within our scientific social hierarchy.

So what to do? I can only speak from the perspective of a junior faculty, but I'm trying to be more judicious about what I choose to do with my time. Of course, I’ve done plenty of time-wasting content generation in the past, and will probably continue to do some, sometimes against my better judgement. And I’m guessing I’ll be presented with tantalizing-sounding opportunities in the future. I just hope that if I do decide to pursue those opportunities, I do so for the right reasons. I feel like as a community, when we are faced with a choice, we should remember that we're highly skilled scientists being asked to do free work for someone. And that someone is probably not working for free. Many companies would pay dearly for access to your knowledge. We shouldn't sell ourselves short, even when people try and make us feel tall.

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