Scholarly Communications: the View from Fiesole
You can see a long way from Fiesole. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, remembered the red orb of the sun sinking over the Tuscan hills and likened it to the burnished shield on Satan’s back as he is cast into Hell in Paradise Lost. Some of the delegates at the annual Fiesole Retreat, looking at Open Access and the future of scholarly communication, may have felt similarly cast down, but, if so, they kept it to themselves in a meeting, celebrating its 21st birthday, that lived up to a reputation for real debate, direct speaking, but total respect for the positions of delegates from all sides of the scholarly information workflow. This meeting, a joint venture of Casalini Libri and the Charleston library conference, was at its very best as the European Commission, critically important library interests, publishers of all disciplines, and OA providers alongside traditional subscription journals all contributed viewpoints on a developing situation in scholarly communications which desperately needs the debate engendered here.
As an observer of the debate and anchorman for the ensuing discussion I have waited ten days before adding my own view to all this. In truth, I cannot sum up the complexity and detail, or render the passion and eloquence of many of the arguments. But the cumulative effect on me was to sharpen the conclusion that i was witnessing something coming, however slowly, to an end. The debate about OA and Plan S is not an end in itself. Subscription publishing will never reassert itself and OA disappear. Nor will the world slowly become totally OA. The changes and the debate point to bigger and more fundamental changes. I was left feeling that just as we have been through Digital Replacement – all paper based content went digital – followed by Digital Transformation – the workflows and processes went digital and became wholly network interconnected – we now approach Digital Re-invention – in which the forms and artefacts of the analogue world themselves give way to digital connectivity which not only alters relationships in the network, but introduces the computer, the machine as reader and researcher, into the workflow.
We are now in a situation where the old generalities are becoming useless. STM and HSS are near meaningless, given the differences between Life Sciences and Physics, or Chemistry, as research communication fields. Likewise statistical social sciences and humanities. And when I asked what the identifiable critical information problems of scientists were I got two answers – Reproducibility and Methodology.
In other words, researchers were anxious to repeat previous experiments using the same or different data or conditions in order to see if results were the same, and they wished to explore the methods used by successful experiments in order to justify a choice of methodology. Response to these demands requires that all of the data is available and connected by metadata, which is evidently not the case. And of course, specialist services will come into play to meet the needs – in these cases protocols.io, and Ripeta and Gigantum (both new members at Digital Science). These are the type of tools that researchers will use. So what about the books, journals, articles? Who will read them? The answer of course is the intelligent machine, and the nomenclature will change as it becomes obvious that the machine is only interested in content-as-data, not in format at all.
I asked, again and in vain, whether any publishers present had an idea of the current proportion of usage made by non search bot machines. But the fact is we are not measuring this. And we all nodded when someone said the next generation just want to get the preprint done and stop there – getting something into the network with a growing confidence that it will be found seems to be the thing. We are certainly getting smarter at measuring impact and dissemination, though still behind the curve in accomplishing those vital matters. And, Lordy, Lordy, we do have an industry hang up about the way academics are rewarded with tenure and grant support.
Is it so frightening for us to imagine change here because we have hung the future of academic publishing around the neck of an archaic system of academic rewards? Why is it that we always think that change only occurs in our sub sector and the rest of the world stays constant? There is already movement around impact factors in academic review systems. The very fact of PlanS shows funders getting more interested in measuring impact and increasing dissemination. The only certainty about a network is that when one position alters, so do all the rest.
So my concerns about this sector remain more about the pace of change than the direction. Work like the eLife Reproducible Document Stack (RDS) is fascinating in this regard – will we interconnect the research lab manuals and review the work in progress at some point? Or will publishing be an automated function of the RDS in time. Whatever happens, we will always need the presence of cross industry multi-disciplinary groups like Fiesole to get the vital perspective, the view from a hill.
Originally published on davidworlock.com on 19th April 2019