Researchers can disrupt publishing

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Scholarly publishers have many discussions about potential disruption to the industry but what role are researchers playing in industry changes? More than we might at first think, argues Neil Jacobs of JISC

How disruptive do researchers want to be in the publishing process? Anecdotal evidence suggests not very. One researcher I asked replied that he simply wants the publishing system to be straightforward and effective because ‘researchers already do 70 per cent of the work and don't feel like they should do the other 30 per cent’. Another, an historian, had little time for open-access online publishing, stating that 'if it's not printed on paper and bound then I won’t read it'.

Anecdote is backed up by a certain amount of research. The Researchers of Tomorrow second year study 2010-11 found that many generation Y researchers, born between 1982 and 1994, and older doctoral students appear "deeply confused" about what open access and self-archiving mean. Around half the sample expressed reservations about using open-access channels to publish their work, ranging from lack of status or credibility to cost and copyright concerns. When Nature Publishing Group experimented with open peer review a few years ago, they concluded that ‘researchers see little to be gained from open discourse before or after publication’.

And yet, look at the history of disruptive innovation and we see a pattern. Innovations are introduced and, initially, cannot match the existing product or process – they might be more costly or time consuming, for example. However, what successfully disruptive innovations do have in their favour is a community of people around the innovation who believe in it and its potential for massive improvements to transform the world in which it is working.

Scholarly publishing is now at the stage where we have a set of potentially-disruptive innovations with those necessary communities around them growing rapidly. PLoS ONE is a great example. Fully open access, it's now the largest journal in the world, publishing 15,000 articles a year and changing the face of publishing. It may well be the platform that is really able to take advantage of social networking tools. Or take the long-standing and equally respected arXiv, offering open access to 712,838 e-prints in physics, maths and computer science.

These initiatives are clearly beginning to achieve real scale, suggesting that we could be reaching the point where disruptive technologies are no longer more costly and or more complex to use than the mainstream, and so researchers are increasingly switching to these alternative publication routes.

There are also smaller undercurrents of disruption bubbling up that are worth watching. Research Without Walls is an online petition where researchers can pledge to assist in the peer-review process only for publication venues that are accessible to the public, for free, via the web. With 320 signatures and rising, it's still at its earliest stages but it does represent a growing sense of unease at the perceived injustice of a publishing system where researchers will put in '70 per cent of the work' in a collegiate manner in the best interests of science, only to see their approach exploited for commercial gain by traditional publishers.

It ties in with experiments in campus-based publishing. Here, universities act as an infrastructure, a platform, enabling academics to rejuvenate the idea of the university press in the digital age, and allowing researchers to come together to share research findings in a collegiate rather than a commercial way. The School of Advanced Study, University of London, is putting this notion into practice with SAS Open Journals. Using a legal journal, Amicus Curiae, as an exemplar, SAS plans to offer its publication system at minimal cost to other journals within the school and to learned societies more widely.

More radical yet is the notion of nanopublications, as outlined by Barend Mons. A nanopublication is the smallest unit of publishable information: an assertion about anything that can be uniquely identified and attributed to its author. Texts are broken down into these sets of assertions and provenances and shared. According to Nanopub, 'nanopublications are a natural response to the explosion of high-quality contextual information that overwhelms the capacity of conventional research articles in scholarly communication.'

Arguably, the ingredients for a full-blown revolution will remain elusive for some time, but there are already clear signs of some fairly rapid changes taking place. We can also see slow burners, such as linked data, coming to the surface now in scholarly communications in developments such as nanopublications and tools like myexperiment and ChemSpider. While we need to understand that researchers are not a homogenous bunch – there are certainly differences between generations and between disciplines – they are increasingly using the open web for their work. The kinds of tools I've mentioned here all work best on the open web and are likely to out-evolve their more closed competitors.

We’ve seen one of these open tools in spectacular action over the last few weeks. How has the faster-than-light neutrino study managed to attract over 80 follow-up papers since first publication in September? The CERN OPERA experiment researchers published their early findings in the open-access arXiv where the informal system of peer review has allowed fellow scientists to criticise the research and offer theoretical explanations. This in turn has informed the OPERA team's next set of experiments. Immediate access to provisional research findings may not be right for every discipline, but here is certainly a dramatic example of a disruptive technology that has become mainstream, perhaps blazing a trail for others to follow.