Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ten Hot Topics

The topic of scholarly communication has received short shrift here for the last few years. There has been too much to say about other topics, and developments such as Plan S have been exhaustively discussed elsewhere. But I do want to call attention to an extremely valuable review by Jon Tennant and a host of co-authors entitled Ten Hot Topics around Scholarly Publishing.

The authors pose the ten topics as questions, which allows for a scientific experiment. My hypothesis is that all these questions, while strictly not headlines, will nevertheless obey Betteridge's Law of Headlines, in that the answer will be "No". Below the fold, I try to falsify my hypothesis.


The ten topics, with illustrative quotes from their sections of the paper, are:
  1. Will preprints get your research scooped? No:
    there is virtually no evidence that ‘scooping’ of research via preprints exists, not even in communities that have broadly adopted the use of the arXiv server for sharing preprints since 1991.
  2. Do the Journal Impact Factor and journal brand measure the quality of authors and their research? No:
    About ten years ago, national and international research funding institutions pointed out that numerical indicators such as the JIF should not be deemed a measure of quality. In fact, the JIF is a highly-manipulated metric, and justifying its continued widespread use beyond its original narrow purpose seems due to its simplicity (easily calculable and comparable number), rather than any actual relationship to research quality
  3. Does approval by peer review prove that you can trust a research paper, its data and the reported conclusions? No:
    Multiple examples across several areas of science find that scientists elevated the importance of peer review for research that was questionable or corrupted. ... At times, peer review has been exposed as a process that was orchestrated for a preconceived outcome. ... Another problem that peer review often fails to catch is ghostwriting, a process by which companies draft articles for academics who then publish them in journals, sometimes with little or no changes.
  4. Will the quality of the scientific literature suffer without journal-imposed peer review? No:
    the credibility conferred by the "peer-reviewed" label diminishes what Feynman calls the culture of doubt necessary for science to operate a self-correcting, truth-seeking process. The troubling effects of this can be seen in the ongoing replication crisis, hoaxes, and widespread outrage over the inefficacy of the current system. ... the issue is not the skepticism shared by the select few who determine whether an article passes through the filter. It is the validation and accompanying lack of skepticism—from both the scientific community and the general public—that comes afterwards. Here again more oversight only adds to the impression that peer review ensures quality, thereby further diminishing the culture of doubt and counteracting the spirit of scientific inquiry.
  5. Is Open Access responsible for creating predatory publishers? No:
    A recent study has shown that Beall’s criteria of “predatory” publishing were in no way limited to OA publishers and that, applying them to both OA and non-OA journals in the field of Library and Information Science, even top tier non-OA journals could be qualified as predatory; ... If a causative connection is to be made in this regard, it is thus not between predatory practices and OA. Instead it is between predatory publishing and the unethical use of one of the many OA business models adopted by a minority of DOAJ registered journals.
  6. Is copyright transfer required to publish and protect authors? No:
    not only does it appear that in scientific research, copyright is largely ineffective in its proposed use, but also perhaps wrongfully acquired in many cases, and goes practically against its fundamental intended purpose of helping to protect authors and further scientific research. ... we are unaware of a single reason why copyright transfer is required for publication, or indeed a single case where a publisher has exercised copyright in the best interest of the authors.
  7. Does gold Open Access have to cost a lot of money for authors, and is it synonymous with the APC business model? No:
    Some journals, such as the Journal of Machine Learning Research which costs between $6.50–$10 per article, demonstrate that the cost of publication can be far more efficient than what is often spent. Usually, the costs of publishing and the factors contributing to APCs are completely concealed. The publishers eLife and Ubiquity Press are transparent about their direct and indirect costs; the latter levies an APC of $500.
    And No:
    these data show that the APC model is far from hegemonic in the way it is often taken to be. For example, most APC-free journals in Latin America are funded by higher education institutions and are not conditional on institutional affiliation for publication.
  8. Are embargo periods on ‘green’ OA needed to sustain publishers? No:
    In 2013 the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills already concluded that “there is no available evidence base to indicate that short or even zero embargoes cause cancellation of subscriptions”. ... In a reaction to Plan S, Highwire suggested that three of their society publishers make all author manuscripts freely available upon submission and state that they do not believe this practice has contributed to subscription decline. Therefore, there is little evidence or justification supporting the need for embargo periods.
  9. Are Web of Science and Scopus global platforms of knowledge? No:
    Both are commercial enterprises, whose standards and assessment criteria are mostly controlled by panels of gatekeepers in North America and Western Europe. The same is true for more comprehensive databases such as Ulrich’s Web which lists as many as 70,000 journals, but crucially Scopus has fewer than 50% of these, while WoS has fewer than 25%. While Scopus is larger and geographically broader than WoS, it still only covers a fraction of journal publishing outside North America and Europe. For example, it reports a coverage of over 2000 journals in Asia (“230% more than the nearest competitor”) which may seem impressive until you consider that in Indonesia alone there are more than 7000 journals listed on the government’s Garuda portal (of which more than 1300 are currently listed on DOAJ); while at least 2500 Japanese journals listed on the J-Stage platform.
  10. Do publishers add value to the scholarly communication process? Yes:
    publishers do add value to current scholarly communication. Kent Anderson has listed many things that journal publishers do which currently contains 102 items and has yet to be formally contested from anyone who challenges the value of publishers.
    Many items on the list could be argued to be of value primarily to the publishers themselves, e.g., “Make money and remain a constant in the system of scholarly output”. ... It could be questioned though, whether these functions are actually necessary to the core aim of scholarly communication, namely, dissemination of research to researchers and other stakeholders such as policy makers, economic, biomedical and industrial practitioners as well as the general public. Above, for example, we question the necessity of the current infrastructure for peer review, and if a scholar-led crowdsourced alternative may be preferable.
    Importantly, this section ignores the fact that, as established in the previous sections, publishers also subtract value. The ways they subtract value include the massive annual amounts they transfer from research budgets to their executives and shareholder's wallets, the delays they impose on the communication of results, their impact-factor based marketing, their co-option of senior researchers via editorial board slots, and so on and on.


Nine out of ten (technically ten out of eleven) topics conform to Betteridge's Law. The remaining one is a "Yes, but ...", because in my view it was poorly stated. It should have been "Do publishers add more value to the scholarly communication process than they subtract?" Thus whether question #10 falsifies my hypothesis is open to some doubt.

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