Research is 'behind paywalls, poorly communicated, and in the control of private corporations'

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Jon Tennant 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?

We are still not using web-based technologies to do what we could be doing. The web was created for the instantaneous sharing of scholarly research, and it’s basically the only thing that we haven’t achieved since its development. The power of the web has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, yet scholarly research – that could have profound impacts – often remains hidden behind paywalls, poorly communicated, and in the control of private corporations. 

Technological innovation tends to meet resistance, especially with a very entrenched and powerful status quo, and that’s what we have in scholarly publishing. It’s led to a system of cultural inertia, where everyone is locked into a system of fear of innovation, because the traditional way of doing things is basically still forced down our throats and seems to be the only way of doing things. It makes innovating beyond that extremely risky for individuals. We haven’t had any coordinated or systematic strategic innovation across research domains, libraries, and policy makers, we’re kept in a perpetual state of risk. Those who want to innovate are chased out the system, and those who stay within the system are those who can conform. Everyone is still playing the ‘publish or perish’ game, because everyone is under the illusion that everyone else is playing the ‘publish or perish’ game. 

How can researchers overcome this challenge?

There’s a lot of reasons to be encouraged that things are changing for the better at the moment. Both from a grass-roots, bottom-up approach, and from a top-down political direction. Someone else realised recently that as risk was the big thing constraining innovation, the only way to overcome that was through creating a system of collective action that remains risk-free to those who sign. With the Free Our Knowledge boycott you can sign the boycott against the commercialisation of the publishing industry, but your name won’t be made public until a specific threshold of signatories from within your own community have also signed. Plan-S policy proposals from a consortium of 13 national funders in the EU, backed by the European Commission, will hopefully stimulate some further activity. It was one of the first times that a policy at this level had actually made direct challenges to the publishing models of traditional publishing houses, and that made it very powerful. 

How can publishers help overcome the challenges?

Publishers did a very good job of transitioning all of their journals and content to being online, but they essentially transferred the legacy print-based world of doing things. They didn’t address the way the journal-based metrics system prioritises the venue of publication over the intrinsic quality of research itself, or how copyright is misused by publishers to essentially steal content from authors, in order to maintain full rights over it. The system was able to shift to a digital world, maintain its current consolidated and powerful control over the way things were conducted, and also continue to make enormous sums of money and huge profits. Plan-S is a good step to breaking the system down and returning science to being a societal or public good, but it’s not ambitious enough.

No one wants to put publishers out of business, what we want to do is have something where they are not making outrageous profits based on business practices that are essentially racketeering and preventing access to knowledge. I would ask them to make all of their content available, and then build services on top of it – which they can use to provide additional value after the research has all been communicated and reviewed. There are many services that can be built on top of the published record, and organisations like Elsevier and Springer Nature are now moving into data and analytics – but they’re still maintaining ownership over the published record, instead of freeing it up and allowing others to build on it too. 

What can libraries do to help overcome the challenges?

Librarians are getting more confident and more vocal. We have library consortia coming together to negotiate stronger collective bargaining positions against large scholarly publishers, and they’re getting more confident because they’re seeing success. In places like Germany and Sweden these consortia have successfully said: 'No, enough is enough. We’re going to stop paying you and reinvest in a system in which researchers can be more efficient and improve the way research is done and communicated.'

There was a really great idea by a librarian last year called the 2.5 per cent Commitment. If libraries all collectively decided that they were going to save 2.5 per cent of their annual budget each year, and invest it into a common scholarly infrastructure it would almost fix the entire system overnight. I’m quite excited to see the librarians take up arms against the publishers and become more confident in negotiations, become more powerful, become more of a community that binds together to support a global scholarly infrastructure that’s in the best interests of the research community and the wider public.

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

Jon Tennant is the founder, Open Science MOOC and a researcher at IGDORE (Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education)