Anthony Scopatz

I think, therefore I amino acid.

The Cost of Knowledge

This was originally published at inSCIght.

In the post-SOPA/PIPA haze, a website was recently launched called the Cost of Knowledge.  This site is basically a petition for a vote-of-no-confidence against Elsevier, a major academic publisher.  By signing your name to their board you promise to refrain publishing,  refereeing, and/or performing editorial duties for any of Elsevier’s many journals.  At the time of writing, 606 researchers have signed the page including inSCIght’s own Luis Ibanez, Greg Wilson, and Andy Terrel.  (I apologize if I have missed anyone.  I thought I saw Cameron Neylon on there earlier as well but I can’t find him anymore.)

This idea makes me nervous for a few reasons:

  1. It is awesome and great things always make me a little weak in the knees,
  2. I am unsure of how effective such a petition is against a single entity,
  3. and I am concerned about how this effects me as an early career scientist.

(1) I wholly agree with the sentiment.  The peer-review process as implemented through journals is largely outmoded with the invention of the internet.  This is especially true in computational science where the extra formal publication step seems obtuse at best.  Science with a big-‘S’ is supposed to be both a meritocracy and a democracy.  You are smart, you learn the ropes, you do interesting work that you enjoy, and at some point you become a full-fledged dues-paying member of the International Science Club.  However, this plan does not always mesh well with the idea that every alleged expert gets an equal vote in their field.  So what we are observing is a struggle between the inheritors of winners in past meritocracies and the ‘populist’ alleged winners in this meritocracy.  Add to this problem the quantitative nature of these fields.  Ideally the evidence itself will eventually win out.  Therefore, it does not actually matter whose egos are crushed in this age.  I find this phenomenon fascinating and scary to watch.

(2) The internet is really a pan-industry problem, so publishers such as Macmillan and AAAS are equally implicated in their practices.  (Full disclosure, Kaitlin Thaney from episode 0 works for Macmillan.  It is clear that the publishers themselves are aware of the issues.)  Having watched activist groups and lobbying organizations for a long time, I feel that it is not a typically successful strategy to go after a single organization.  Additionally, no one is seriously talking about the other great evil paradox in Science: the funding agencies.  So it makes me nervous to see the community start to rise up against a single contender in only one problem area.  There are other vegetables to saute, and this dish will cook itself.

(3) As a young scientist (without 400+ publications under my belt), it is actually a much riskier position to forego the primo publications.  I want to be an academic; I enjoy being an academic.  The way I keep my job is by publishing in places like Nature, Science, and a host other journals put out by these companies.  I do not have tenure.   As much as I might prefer to publish in open access “fair trade” journals when possible, it often too intractable to ignore the heavy hitters outright.  I have a publication in with an Elsevier right now; what I am supposed to do?  I don’t think that this is a quandary to be taken lightly for those of us just starting out.

There seems to be a clear analogy here with the open source licensing world.  GPL and CC may be more morally clean, but BSD is beautifully practical.   (And if you truly love openness, you must concede to the WTFPL.)  We have the closed source license, we have a couple of GPL-esque ones (Insight for one),  so where is my viable BSD-like alternative?  I need something that is nimble, scalable, and strong.

While Elsevier’s support for SOPA and PIPA was certainly a slap in the face of their constituency, it does not change the fact that peer-review - in some form - is a core tenant of Science & Engineering.  And while I believe that this can be done more efficiently, more cheaply, and more quickly online, until universities start hiring faculty members for their reputation on StackOverflow, or their karma on Slashdot, I don’t think that the major publishing houses are really going anywhere.    Through systemic inertia, these companies provide a service which will continue to be grudgingly deemed as valuable by the community.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences; please post in the comments!

ADDENDUM: While posting this last night, I signed the petition with “won’t referee; won’t do editorial work” status.

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