A Vision for 21st Century Scientific Publishing: NFAIS “Open Access and Beyond” Closing Keynote

NFAIS Open Access & Beyond Conference, October 2017

This week I had the honor of delivering the closing keynote for the “Open Access & Beyond” conference sponsored by the National Federation of Advanced Information Societies (NFAIS). We met in Alexandria, VA.

The conference focused on how a shift toward open access scholarly publishing — a model in which anyone can access the results of scholarly research online, for free— has affected the publishing landscape. If all scholarly content were free the current model of subscriptions and licenses would end, and publishers would need to devise completely new business models or go out of business.

As of yet this is very far from happening. The large majority of content that academic librarians acquire, as of 2017, is still via subscriptions or licenses. In that sense open access is still a minor part of the academic publishing landscape. But from a philosophical and policy standpoint it is clear that open access is here to stay. Some philanthropic funders, such as the Gates Foundation, now insist upon immediate open access publication as a condition of receiving a grant award. The United Kingdom has made similar moves to increase access to the research funded within the UK, as has much of Latin America.

As these various examples show, the idea that the internet can facilitate immediate and universal access to the results of research remains compelling. We have a new tool at our disposal for scientific publishing, which is radically different than the tools on offer when the first scholarly journal began in 1665. This week’s conference examined the implications of this shift, from many angles. My closing keynote, hopefully, tied the themes of our two day conversation together. Here were my three main points (see full slide deck here):

1.) Publishers will always be indispensable. Much of the early conversation about open access, especially as the movement gained steam in the early 2000s, assumed the scholarly publishers were an anachronism that would be dispensed with in the internet age. As of now these publishers are still going strong. Back then advocates, including myself, understated the value that publishers offered. Publishers provide recognized journal brands that scholars wanted to write for, and through services like CrossRef build stable links between journals. Advocates were correct to argue that there was no theoretical reason why scholarly publishing online could not be completely different than it was in print. Even so, the fact remained that scholarly publishing had built a long and venerable tradition before the internet came along. The other main argument, that publishers charged an extortionate price based on monopoly power over various journals, was also often true. But as long as librarians were going to pay these bills anyway, this argument was bark without bite.

In addition to the above peculiarities of the academic publishing market, though, there is a more general defense of the need for publishers. The act of getting an idea from an author into print (or online) has always required professional publishers. This is the crucial step of “making things generally known.” The publisher delivers the copy editing and topic editing that makes work better, which is why much self-publishing is not very good. Good work, whether in the academic or popular literature, still requires good publishers. This has not changed in the internet age.

2.) Publishing PDFs of “papers” is so 20th century. While we will always need publishers we will not always need papers — a paper, after all, is but a printed sheet of paper with ink on it. In 1665 this was impressive technology, in 2017 it is not. As I argued earlier this year, a paper is necessarily reductive. In addition to a narrative summary we now can provide online access to all the data generated in a research study, in both canonical fixed versions and dynamic forks that allow for continued research. The technical feat of facilitating such dynamic scholarship — of moving “beyond the PDF” — is what 21st century publishing should become. These would be services worth paying for.

3.) Authors will need to lead the way. Nothing I’ve written so far will matter if authors prefer to still write papers, and if their tenure committees still are willing to receive them just as they would have been 50 years ago. In this case scientific communication will not change much. Even if we achieve full open access, it would principally be to a set of PDFs that do not take advantage of the unique capabilities of the Web. Hopefully we will set our sights higher.