Sunday, June 17, 2012

Where to publish.... Is there still a role for society journals?

Many folks who follow scientific blogs, or science in the media are probably aware of the recent uptick in the discussion of the role of publishing companies in the dissemination of scientific papers. While the Open Access movement (access to the scientific papers are free to all, at least those with access to the internet) has been steadily gaining steam over the past decade or so, there has also been an effort to make the publications associated with any publicly (via Government sources) financed scientific work available to the public. The  logic to this is essentially that since funds from public coffers made the work possible, the summary of the results (as presented in a scientific paper) should be available at the very least to those who paid for it (if not to everyone on the planet, keeping with best scientific traditions). Publishers are still able to recoup their costs, and some profits via page costs, and library subscriptions during an initial phase of "paid access only". In my own estimation, this is pretty sound logic. Of course, I am a Canadian....

The reason that this effort is necessary is that most scientific journals are published via commercial publishers, and that access to many of the papers in these journals is behind a paywall. If you are at an institution that pays for it, you are granted access, otherwise you need to shell out $$. This does not seem to make much sense given that public funds were already used for the work itself. Several years ago the NIH created a policy where published papers associated with research performed with NIH funds need to be made publicly available six months after publication. The reason you may have heard about some or all of this during the past six months was because of the "research works act", which attempted, but failed to get rid of this policy (and other ones that might come to fruition in the future).  The retraction of the proposed legislation was in no small part due to a very irate scientific community and general public (including a well publicized boycott)

 I will in the future add some links to the great discussions available about this. However, I think a few places (here, here and here) sum it up well. Indeed, in addition to damaging the reputation of one publisher, Elsevier in particular, it has acted to really to generate a great deal of energy and discussion within the scientific community about the role of publishing companies in disseminating scientific papers, and more generally in how to open up the scientific process more generally. My friend has a nice review of the open science model, and I also recommend looking at sites like ResearchGate for an interesting experiment in combining science and social networking. There are also some interesting points to discuss about how the movements for open access to publishing, data and reproducible research seem to have not really connected well, despite some obvious shared goals (of access to the raw scientific data, the analysis used with the data, and the published summary of the findings associates with the data). However, that will need to wait for another post.

However my point for this post is somewhat different. It is easy to generate a caricature of the publishing companies as greedy corporate profiteers who use  free labour (in the form of reviewers and editors of scientific papers), often charge scientists "page charges" (to copyedit and format the manuscript for publication), and then charge again for the finished product (to University libraries, and the public at large). Certainly a number of companies have lived up to this caricature as well. The open access publishing movement in its various forms (examples include journals by PLoS, Frontiers, BMC and the new PeerJ) are publishing many new journals that counter these issues (well the third issue, which is really what gets most people upset). I provide a role for several journals from these publishers (PLoS One and Frontiers in Genetics), and I am in general a strong supporter of them. But....

One nagging concern (other than a Hollywood style event that simultaneously destroys all of the hard-drives in the world, thus making all of this work vanish) is the fate of "Society Journals". Most scientific disciplines are backed by a society of researchers working on (often loosely) related research questions. For my own work, two of the societies I belong to are the Genetics Society of America (GSA), and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). Now many scientists think that there societies primary role is to A) Organize a big annual scientific meeting, and B) to publish the "Journal of Record" for the field, where scientific advances are summarized in publication. Again in my field, those journals would be "Genetics" and "Evolution" respectively (I know very surprising names given the field). However, in addition to the two roles discussed above, many of the societies have other roles like public outreach & education, and lobbying on behalf of the scientists.  Of course, until recently most small organizations did not have the ability to copy-edit, typeset and publish journals by themselves so they partnered to varying degrees with private publishing companies.  Now of course, any computer savvy individual can do all of this.

I have absolutely no idea of how the proceeds/profits are split, and how much the scientific society receives (as compared to the publishing company). What I am wondering (and simply do not have any answers to) is how (assuming scientific publishing moves largely to Open Access), will scientific societies fund themselves? Do the journals (like Genetics and Evolution) have a plan to transition to pure Open Access? Do they have a model to sustain themselves? I am a strong supported of my societies, and I think that a lot of harm would be done if they vanished. At the same time, I am in complete support of the OA movement, and think it is likely the future. I have spoken with a number of people about this casually, most notably Michael Eisen, who has blogged a great deal on the need to move entirely to Open Access. However, so far, I have not heard any real mechanism for this. Any ideas?

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