'I can understand anger against publishers'

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Sabine Hossenfelder 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?

I presently see a lot of anger against the big publishers, and think this anger is the biggest challenge right now. Scientists are the publishers’ main customers, and they’re very dissatisfied with what is going on. There are repeated calls to boycott this or that publisher, which I find somewhat ridiculous because publishers are doing a lot of things that scientists normally don’t acknowledge. For example, the whole issue of data storage and indexing and retrieval. This is a lot of work, and scientists seem to think it just comes from nowhere.

Some scientists are trying to do their own things, and in most cases I don’t think that’s particularly useful. I’m a theoretical physicist, so in my area almost all of the papers are on the arXiv. There are now a few arXiv overlay journals that basically use the data that is stored already on the arXiv, and that means they don’t have to worry about how to store the data, and how to make sure that it will remain accessible for the forseeable future. But we’re doing science here that we hope will still be used in 100 to 300 years’ time, and someone has to think about how to make sure that this data will remain accessible. 

What should publishers be doing to try to overcome this challenge? 

There is a communication problem, at least that’s what I see in the part of the community where I work. Publishers could be clearer about what they are doing, how they are trying to help scientists, and also what they have achieved. 

To some extent I can perfectly understand a lot of anger against the publishers. They are making a little bit too much money and there is a lot of nonsense that should stop. For example, I get a lot of requests from publishers who want me to edit books for them, they expect me to solicit chapters, read them, review them, edit them, and all for no payment. That’s totally ridiculous, and then in the end the book will cost $120 or something, so you can’t even buy it. The only one who makes any money with this are the publishers.

On the other hand, publishers are also doing a lot of useful things, and there are more things that should be done that are not going to happen without publishers. For example, there is the whole issue with how you store data and how you make it accessible, how you enable users to interact with graphs and equations and integrate text and data with other software. There is also the idea of having a modular paper where, for example, not everyone has to write an introduction again, but it would be possible to just take an introduction that has been written by someone else, and put it in front of your paper. But that would only work if you can credit the different parts of the paper to different people. I don’t think these things will happen without publishers.  

What do you think researchers can do to help overcome the problems in scholarly publishing?  

There’s the obvious thing they should give credit to the publishers where appropriate, and if possible not download the papers that have been pirated at other places. I know that a lot of people do it anyway, but it’s not helping the situation. 

The problem is there’s a lot of things that one could say but I don’t think it’s realistic that scientists are going to change anything about it. For example, peer review presently does not work particularly well. A lot of peer reviewers are sloppy, because people don’t take the time. But the reason they don’t take the time is because they don’t have the time. There are too many other things to do. There are just too many papers, and this is a problem that does not originate from the publishers. I wouldn’t want to say “scientists should spend more time on their reviews, and write better reviews”, because although that’s true in principle, it’s not very useful advice. 

One thing that I don’t really understand is why publishers insist that the peer-review is still very closely connected with the publication. These are two distinct things: one is about whether it is scientifically correct, the other is about whether we want to publish it in this journal. It would make much more sense, and it be much more economic, to have a peer review of a paper where you just get some kind of report, and with this report you can then go and look for a journal that might want to publish the paper. This would save a lot of time by just streamlining the effort of peer review.  

How can libraries help with the problems in scholarly publishing?

Libraries are the ones holding the negotiation power with publishers. This can work very well, as has been the case for the Dutch university libraries, which have worked out pretty good open-access deals with several large publishers. I hope that other countries will be able to reach similar agreements. In this, libraries not only have to coordinate their efforts; they also shouldn’t forget to seek contact with academics to understand their needs. 

Sabine Hossenfelder is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies

Download the free report, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018, here.

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