The purpose of publications in a pandemic and beyond

For Elizabeth Gadd, the Covid-19 pandemic makes it clear that long standing issues with academic publications need to be addressed quickly and definitively.

There’s nothing like a crisis to make you realise what’s important and this couldn’t be truer than in the world of scholarly communication.

As researchers have rushed to investigate our way out of the current pandemic we’ve see journal content opened up, publication speeded up and systematic reviews ramped up. And we’ve seen research evaluation mothballed.

What’s going on?

UKRI is investing in £20M in novel coronavirus research whilst REF is on hold. The Wellcome Trust are converting their offices into respite care for NHS staff not making announcements about their new responsible metrics guidance.

The virus is reminding us that the purpose of scholarly communication is not to allocate credit for career advancement, and neither is it to keep publishers afloat. Scholarly communication is about, well, scholars communicating with each other, to share insights for the benefit of humanity. And whilst we’ve heard all this before, in a time of crisis we realise afresh that this isn’t just rhetoric, this is reality.

I recently attended an excellent OASPA webinar and heard SPARC’s Heather Joseph describe how they had to negotiate permission to put COVID19 articles on CORD19 (an OA database of COVID19) content, and even then, only the COVID papers they’d got permission for were available, not the network of references that those papers cited.

I must confess that I had a little sob.

What publications are for

I’ve been working in open access for over 20 years. My first job involved seeking copyright permission to digitise journal articles for academics to use – often their own papers – in their own teaching. We advocated open access as a solution to this problem. Twenty years on, we’re still advocating it, and I’m reserving the right to feel a little bit guilty, and more than a little angry and frustrated.

It seems to me that for twenty years any efforts to advocate for open access to research have been stifled by what I call the two big “buts”:

  1. But what about publishers and scholarly societies? How do we ensure they survive and that the economy isn’t damaged? (Subtext: publications are for profit)
  2. But what about academic careers? A good publication list is critical for promotion and tenure. (Subtext: publications are for credit).

When I explained the first “but” to my partner, and how many open access policies sought to shore up the publishing industry, he said it sounded like something straight out of the eighteenth century slave trade debates. The fact that profits will be affected by doing the right thing, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing. Right?

And I confess to becoming increasingly less sympathetic to those touting the second argument. It reminds me of that video where an Italian mayor screams at his constituents for using mobile hairdressers during the lockdown, “What are you doing?!”, he yells. “Do you want to look good in your coffin? Don’t you know the coffin will be closed?!” If we’ve created a generation of scholars who are just in it for the glory of papers in glamorous journals, and not to do good research that changes the world a little bit, then we really are in trouble.

Because the pursuit of glamour could be killing us.

The cost of publication

UKRI have been throwing money (about £150 million by my estimate) at funding eye-watering Article Processing Charges with haute couture journals for seven years. This is money that could have been used for actual life-saving research. However, by trying to balance a preference for immediate OA to the version of record with a desire not to impinge on academics’ freedom-to-publish-where-they-want (not to be confused with actual academic freedom) they found themselves paying increasingly hefty APCs for publications in journals that were more about distinction than dissemination. And when it comes to a global emergency, we’re still having to beg publishers for access to our own research so that we might save large swathes of the human race from an unnecessary death.

This is why I see the UKRI OA policy consultation as such an important opportunity. And I’m hopeful that world events, whilst tragic and terrible, may bring into sharp relief the true value and purpose of scholarly communication. Because I fear that despite all its talk of transformation, the only thing the proposed UKRI OA policy is currently set to transform is publisher profit margins. Yes, inspired by Plan S, it seeks immediate OA to all research output – which is great. But the lack of journals with zero embargo Green OA policies may mean that publication in pricey APC-based Gold OA journals is the only option for researchers. Thus publisher profit margins continue to be maintained whilst enabling self-destructive credit-seeking publication behaviours.

I say profit and credit can no longer be policy drivers. They just can’t.

The next platform

And it strikes me that when you take income generation and evaluation out of the equation, there is an obvious solution to this problem: UKRI need to set up a funder-based publishing platform and say to recipients, if you want our money, publish your findings here. End of.

This is not a new idea, but a proven technology. Gates Open Research is a great example. Despite not being the only publication option for Gates Foundation recipients, the papers published in Gates Open Research are achieving a cites-per-paper rate on a par with the world average for medicine. Similarly, Wellcome Open Research is on a par with top quartile journals in both biochemistry and medicine in terms of it’s Scimago Journal Rank.

We can’t just keep on writing open access policies in the hope that publishers will adapt their policies to accommodate them. No. If you want something doing, do it yourself. Or at least, you develop the specification, and invite publishers to bid to provide their services in accordance with that specification.

Seriously, what’s not to like? It’s not my purpose to expand on all the features of a publishing platform, but I can’t resist the following highlights:

  1. Preprints are available for immediate review and consumption by all (we know that in many disciplines peer review doesn’t materially change the output so this is a must – and it shaves years off publication times).
  2. Post-publication peer review reports give reviewers credit.
  3. Approved outputs can be indexed in bibliographic databases and made just as discoverable as journal-based outputs.
  4. All outputs can be made available under a CC-BY licence and in accordance with all the necessary technical requirements for truly findable, accessible, interoperable and reproducible research.
  5. Links to datasets and other open research outputs can be added.
  6. UKRI gets to trace, cradle-to-grave, the impacts of their funded research as it’s all published in one place.
  7. Publishing on the platform doesn’t depend on the wealth of the organisation and the size of their Gold OA Fund.
  8. It reduces researcher anxiety about ‘getting stuff published’. If it’s funded by UKRI it is welcome on the platform.
  9. Quality is assessed through peer review reports, and impact through subsequent usage (citations if that floats your boat), and not by journal brand.

So please UKRI, when you come to make your difficult policy decisions about open access, please put front and centre at every stage a very simple question: “Will this help scholars communicate more effectively and do better research?”. Everything else is a distraction. Progress has been impeded by two buts for twenty years. It’s time to focus.

No buts.

5 responses to “The purpose of publications in a pandemic and beyond

  1. Really enjoyed this article. As someone who used to work for PLOS and continues to be a big supporter of the OA movement, I appreciate the clear articulation if the two major challenges.

  2. Reprints, pre-prints and open access are one thing, obtaining reagents from labs that have published is quite another. Maybe the OA folks can find a solution to this as well.

  3. I strongly feel that there must be some mechanism to test the veracity of the results before publication. The present practice of peer-review only concerns about the experimental designs, conventions, language, parameters, methodology, etc.

    In addition, Linking the career and promotion to number of publication has lead to dilution of scientific literature. Most of the nobel laureates and great scientists who achieved path-breaking researches during the second-half of nineteen and first half of twentieth century have had less than 20 papers but genuinely contributing. In today’s scenario, some of the rank and file positions are occupied by authors of hundreds of papers. Funding and financial support demands quantum of publication only adding to build pressure for pleasure of power and possession.

    In order to stop stimulating scholars to write scientific and scholarly communication especially in the area of original research articles, there is a need to stimulate writing for genuine purpose other than for inflating publication number.

    The only mechanism for the purification of future scientific literature is by delinking the pulication quantity from scientific career. Rather scholastic aptitude tests, research ethics, and such other empirical means are to be adopted.

  4. Thanks for the clear articulation in this engaging article. I need an explanation of why CC-BY-NC is an issue? I feel a bit dense but don’t get the issue – to bring in the arts researchers who resist lack of NC.

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