Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Debate: The future for scholarly journals: slow evolution, rapid transformation – or redundancy?

Plenary Session 5
The first session of the last day at UKSG took the form of a debate between Cameron Neylon and Michael Mabe on the future for scholarly journals. There was an impressive turnout despite the 9am start and the Ceilidh the night before!

The transformation is already here - it's just unevenly distributed
Cameron Neylon

First presentation in the debate, arguing that the transformation is already here.

"Large institutions seek to preserve the problem to which they are the solution" - Clay Shirky

What do we mean by a journal?
Traditionally we have thought of a journal as having the following characteristics:
  • Journals contains articles
  • There is a process to select articles for inclusion
  • There is a publisher who manages the process
  • A journal will only belong to one publisher and a single article will only belong to one journal
  • There is a single version of record
How is technology changing the look of the 'journal'?
Neylon argued that new tools are changing how content is made available and that this should challenge our view of that a journal is.

He gave 2 examples of this:

WordPress - WorldPress, the free blogging software, now supports many journal type publications. The service is free and will only continue to get better. The software gives anyone the ability to put together a 'journal' in 10 minutes and lots of free plugins are available to add functionality such as commenting or PubMed IDs for citations. Some examples of journals on the WordPress platform includes PLoS Current: Disasters the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies

Figshare - Site for sharing figures and metadata, doesn't fit traditional idea of a journal, but provides very useful information to researchers. For Neylon this raises questions of what is smallest useful piece of research? why are we still tied to the idea of a journal article?

Do we need journals any more?
Neylon argues that you can get answers from Google that direct you into trusted databases. When looking for an answer to a specific question to progress an experiment he did a comparison between Googling for the answer or looking at scholarly articles. After spending 6 hours collating the information from the articles he had what he needed, yet he had the answer in minutes from Google. Neylon said he would choose a database or Wikipedia over a journal article when looking for answers to specific questions as it is just so much quicker.

"The research literature just has a poor user interface" Greg Gordon - SSRN

Neylon gave the examples of stackoverflow and mathoverflow as great forums for finding answers.

Why do researchers still write articles?
Researchers are attached to journals, but why? Neylon argued this was more about prestige and wanting to feel like their research is important; collecting notches on their bed posts! When reading they hate people who write articles, but yet they keep writing the articles, as they need them for advancement, this is just not sustainable.

What will the future look like?
Neylon argues that someone somewhere is going to figure out best way to make the user interface work, if publishers don't look to do this another player will. Once we stop presenting and consuming articles people will stop writing them.

He suggested that the future would involve publication in smaller pieces (think Lego heads), which might then be built into larger things (think Meccano cars), with different pieces being put together to create exactly what the user wants, delivered differently to different audiences.

So why hasn't the journal changed more as a result of the internet?
Michael Mabe

Second presentation in the debate, arguing that the fundamental appearance of journal articles has remained, and will remain, remarkably unchanged.

Why hasn't the journal changed more?
Mabe argued that he wasn't defending a non-technical status quo, but that even those cross-referencing and linking between content is now the norm, the fundamentals seem unchanged.

Digital Incunabula argument
Mabe argued that the real revolution was not in the introduction of printing, but in the idea of the book with the introduction of the Codex; splitting up long scroll into pages. The structure of a book is deeply embedded in human culture and 2 millennia of habit and utility are going to take some undoing.

Darwian Angle
Mabe argued that researcher behaviour is key to understanding why the journal still exists. With a researcher having 2 very different modes: Author mode and reader mode.

Author mode:
  • To be seen to report and idea first
  • To feel secure in communicating that idea
  • To have their claim accepted by peers
  • To report their idea to the right audience
  • To get recognition for their idea
  • To have a permanent public record

Reader mode:
  • To identify relevant content
  • To select based on trust and authority
  • To locate and consume it
  • To cite it
  • To be sure it is final and permanent
Functions of the journal a la Oldenburg
Henry Oldenburg outlined the key roles for academic journal publishing as registration, certification, archiving, dissemination, navigation. These roles are still seen today.

Generational Change?
Mabe argued that we are confusing the mass market with the scholarly market. How people act in professional life is different to how act in private life. Researches are still required to publish their work and young researchers are actually more conservative that their older peers as they need to make their name. There are NEW tools but they serve OLD purposes - Technology just enables greater efficiency. The system has evolved to satisfy needs, the human needs of researchers, until these change the scholarly article will remain the same. If an asteroid hit tomorrow and we rebuild from scratch we are likely to create something very similar.

The debate

After both Neylon and Mabe had presented their arguments the session was opened up to debate, a summary of which is included below.

Neylon: Where the disagreement is on what will be the important pressures. The asteroid that could makes us re-think things will be public looking at what we are doing and saying it is not up to scratch. Researchers are very conservation, but there will be pressure to change.

Mabe: It is a case of publisher or perish, is not just about career progression. Authors from industry, rather than in academic institutions, are not being promoted for publishing, but publishing because they want to be recognised as being first person to think of idea.

Gedye: We are getting little views through little windows, but what going on in room behind the window? Where are the PDFs in the examples show, a lot of contradictions in what has been said.

Neylon: Loath looking at PDFs, want to read on screen. Sense shifting, people no longer printing out PDFs.

Mabe: Download figures still show a predominance of PDF usage. The form of the article is more about establishing trust and authority not consumption. We only so much time so want to read something we trust. There are 2 types of behaviour information seeking and literature consumption.

Neylon: Most information is in text form in journal articles, people using tools that sit on top of those.

Audience: There seems to be a disconnect between what early adopters think is important and what mass market wants.

Twitter: Isn't this discipline specific?

Neylon: Within Physical and Biological sciences there are smaller fragments that are useful. A lot more work to be done to understand the differences; boundary between smallest useful fragment and how this needs to be aggregated to be useful to different audiences. Likely to end up with different forms in different disciplines.

Mabe: There is a tendency to paper over differences in disciplines. It is the idea that really matters. In the sciences are concerned about speed of publication, not such a concern for other disciplines. Who does registration and do you trust them to register it, this is where trusted 3rd parties comes in.

Twitter: Micro-publication will change behaviour and needs.

Mabe: Argument about reducing publication down to lower level such as paragraph, could become more of a network of links.

Neylon: Will see a change in what researchers do. Lower burden of publication and authoring; very expensive process, lots of things never get authored as too much work. But what can we do with the content?

Audience: Driving force is finding more satisfying way to meet needs - Can make better ideas when work together rather than alone.

Neylon: Stack Exchange model - Asking and answering questions, can up vote responses to build reputation, then get more control to down vote, remove comments etc. Managed by community, reputation is the key. Great place to find people with specific expertise. Registration and certification still very important. Works in specific domains.

Mabe: Moderation is very important. Community need to have confidence in something.

A very thought provoking and lively session, a great way to start the final day!

1 comment:

  1. Ann Michael has also written up a summary of this session for the Scholarly Kitchen (, which is resulting in more interesting discussions on this topic.