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What Do You Hear When You Buy a Researcher a Beer? Frustration!

30th June 2015
By Phill Jones
Henry Oldenburg. Helluva guy.

One of the objections that often comes up to reforming scholarly communication is that academics and researchers just aren’t that interested in new technologies and approaches. I tackled this idea on the perspectives blog a couple of months ago when I elaborated on an answer that I’d given to question from Peter Ashman during the London Book Fair. This week, I’m going to address a slightly different slant that I’ve been hearing lately on what is essentially the same objection.

Occasionally I hear academic publishers remark that when you ask researchers what they need and what is important to them, the answer is simple. Impact Factor. Now, let’s put to one side the apparent disconnect between that perception and how both funders and institutions say that they assess academic impact and instead take a step back and think about why academics say that.

If you sit down over a cup of coffee (or even better a beer) with a researcher and ask some follow-up questions, you’ll hear some things that might surprise you. Many academics that I’ve spoken to are frustrated with the current status quo, and this isn’t just the ones like me who dropped out because they weren’t getting the traction that they needed to be successful. I’m referring to successful academics at high profile institutions, many of whom are fully tenured professors.

A year or so ago, I spoke to a very successful biophysicist that I’ve known since I was a scientist myself, while tagging along with my wife at an academic conference in Spain (I know, it’s tough job). He told me that he’d grown frustrated by the fact that instrumentationists are rarely afforded the credit that they deserve, often getting lost in the middle of the author list or even worse, left off entirely, when their contribution was no less important or intellectually demanding than the person whose postdoc made the measurements.  While this didn’t affect him too badly as the holder of a named chair with a long and storied career, he feared for the future of many of his most talented graduate students and postdocs.

On another occasion, a full professor at an Ivy league university explained to me how he felt constrained by the “publish or perish” mentality and the way that institutions and funders look at assessment. He remarked that at his career stage he felt like he ought to be making more of a difference. That he should be pushing forward big ideas, testifying to Congress and engaging with the public. Despite having such ideas, he felt that he couldn’t pursue them because they would be reviewed as too risky by grant panels, have a high chance of generating negative data, for which he’d receive no credit, and not necessarily lend themselves to the formulas, that he knew well, to get papers into high impact journals.

When Henry Oldenberg founded the first scientific journal, he didn’t do it because Robert Hooke told him that it was what natural philosophy needed in order to transform into what we call science today. He saw a need to accelerate research communication so that scholars didn’t have to wait for their colleagues to write entire books. He was also aware of the need for quality control and so instituted the first peer-review system. He saw a need and understood that filling that need was good business. As a result, he fundamentally changed the way that new knowledge is communicated and therefore, to my mind, did as much for the advancement of human knowledge as any scholar of the enlightenment.

My call to publishers is to be a little more like Oldenberg and listen more deeply to what researchers are saying about their communication needs. When they say that all they need is high impact publications and nothing else matters, they’re not saying that they don’t want reform or innovation. They’re saying that they feel locked into a system that negatively affects the way in which they work, act and even think. Scholarly publishing has always been central to the advancement of knowledge and particularly to the scientific method. It’s part of the fabric of the philosophy and history of science and as custodians of it, it’s our duty to innovate so that we can better serve the researchers, scientists, humanists and academics that rely on what we do.

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