'Access is not really the main issue anymore'

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Bjorn Brembs was interviewed as part of Research Information's report The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018 

What do you see as the biggest challenges in scholarly publishing today?

The biggest challenge is the circularity of the entire structure of how we communicate with each other: things are tied up in a way that makes it very difficult to break up. The publishers, librarians, and faculty scientists all have very different perspectives, and it’s very difficult to cooperate when everyone has different perspectives and different interests. In a short phrase: it’s a social problem. 

Libraries, for instance, say “we would instantly drop our subscriptions, if we knew that faculty would be publishing elsewhere” because they don’t realise that if we publish elsewhere we risk our jobs. You just have to look up job ads for faculty or tenure track positions, and you’ll see we have to publish in certain journals if you want that job. Usually librarians are quite aghast or surprised when I tell them that this is the choice we have, they seem to see it as some subliminal self-stroking ego if we publish in certain journals. If one looks at our journal system and most journals that virtually guarantee you a job, those are journals that are also publishing the least reliable science. If you’ve done that for the last 30 years, then maybe it’s no surprise that we’re wondering about the reliability of science.

What do you think researchers could do to overcome the problems?

There’s not really a whole lot more that we can do. As evaluators we could always try and evaluate our peers differently, but that essentially means that you have to convince seven million full-time equivalent researchers to change the way they work, but this may take another generation or so. It took 25 years for open access to at least get talked about, so I guess it’ll take another 25 years, or a generation, until something will change. 

As authors there’s not a whole lot we can do. I don’t think people are willing to risk their careers, or should risk their careers, so that other people can read certain papers. Access is not really the main issue anymore, when we have Sci-Hub that allows you to read stuff if you need to. Even before those technologies you could write a letter or an email to an author and get the paper. There were always ways around, it was just not very convenient.  

What can the library sector do to help?

The job of a library is to curate, archive and make accessible the work of scholars, and they should be doing that with our current intellectual products in the most cost-effective way. Clearly buying the articles back from publishers isn’t the most cost-effective way, and so what libraries can do is offer some other system for scholarly communication. 

The easiest way and the most technological way 
to do this is to have a system that’s in principle analogous to a social media platform. Scholars post articles with data and then we discuss it, we peer review it, we do all kinds of commenting and other works on it. You could keep, expand and improve on our stoneage quality control measures, and have a much better curated, and a much more quality controlled social media system with scholarly societies.  

Scholarly journals are an invention of the 17th century, and I don’t see how that could be superior to modern technology of the 21st century, and any functionality of today’s journals that we want to copy is easy to copy with modern technology. The W3C has set up its social web protocols, which would in principle allow us to use these standards and build such open platforms right away. I’m pretty sure that the concept of journals has run its course.

What can publishers do to help overcome the challenges in scholarly publishing?

They could in principle, but not in reality, change the business model from content hoarding and extortion to service providing. Such a scholarly communication platform would require servicing, each institution would share its part in the maintenance and development and innovation of this platform and this can either be done in-house or with external help. 

What we call paper publishing today, would just be another infrastructure, and today’s publishers would provide their expertise in an actual competition with other providers and would be truly interchangeable, which means they would truly compete, whereas now there isn’t really any competition, as every article is its own monopoly.

Bjorn Brembs is a professor at the Institute of Zoology – Neurogenetics, at Universität Regensburg