A_Rubber_stamp_standEarlier this week, the first Researcher to Reader conference rose from the ashes of the Association of Subscription Agents (ASA), thanks to the Herculean efforts of Mark Carden (@CardenM), with a little help from the organising committee. I blogged about the new conference a few weeks ago and I’m glad to say that the conference largely lived up to my expectations.

During its final few years, the ASA conference was a forum to discuss a broader range of topics than the business of subscription agents and it was good to see that trend continue. The program consisted of a series of talks, panels and workshops on a wide range of topics, including the economics of open access, the future of academic reputation, research management, and even practical discussions on how to build a culture of innovation. This last topic was the subject of a workshop that was expertly run by Martha Sedgwick (@coffeepot), Executive Director of Product Innovations at Sage. I attended that workshop and supplied a case study on how innovation is done at Digital Science. You can read that here, if you’re interested.

It was good to see other ASA traditions continued. Particularly, the inclusion of a controversial opening keynote. Many of you will remember that Derk Haank, CEO of Springer Nature, famously accused subscription agents of being professional tea drinkers at last year’s ASA, while he appealed to them to find a way to stay in business. This year, it was Vitek Tracz’s turn to divide the audience. Tracz is Chairman of Science Navigation Group, which is responsible for F1000. During his talk, he predicted that academic journals are on the brink of demise because they serve no useful function as a container. This is a point of view that I have some sympathy for. When researchers search abstract databases like PubMed, there’s an increasing tendency to pay more attention to article title, author list, affiliation, and abstract, than the name of the journal.

Where I felt the argument fell down was that, by Tracz’ own admission, the role of journals as conferring prestige is as important, if not more important than ever. When the incentive structure in academia shifts so that research isn’t judged on the name of the journal in which it’s published, then the journal will become unnecessary.

Tracz talk raised an interesting question that was revisited several times during the conference, that of the potential to separate the two roles of scholarly publishing, those of dissemination and accreditation. With today’s Internet infrastructure, discrete journals aren’t needed in order to perform the former. The rise of the mega journal and particularly the success of PLOS ONE is proof that through search and appropriate meta-tagging it really is possible to create a big bucket of content and allow readers to explore and discover the content they need.

For historical reasons, accreditation and the quality control mechanisms that allow for it are tied to journals and this is where I think there is a risk. Danny Kingsley (@dannykay68), Head of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge talked about some of the push-back that she gets from faculty when discussing subjects like research management and open access. She mentioned that many physicists are reluctant to pay for gold open access publication because they make their work available through arXiv. During questions, somebody raised the point that arXiv has resulted in a separation of dissemination and accreditation in physics, maths and related fields. While this is true, I think it’s important to note that as a pre-print server, arXiv offers the opportunity for researchers to get feedback on their work, often prior to submitting it to a journal. In fact, the development of arXiv was partly inspired by the way in which physicists in certain disciplines distribute their work amongst their peers prior to submitting it to a journal. So while arXiv is about dissemination, it’s also about quality control, or rather quality improvement.

People who are trying to improve the way that science is communicated often look to arXiv as an exemplar of how scientific information can be disseminated without all the tedious and time-consuming author burden that publishing involves. I agree, but it’s also important to look at the context in which it happens. If you were to ask a biologist, for example, if they’d be willing to distribute their work to competing labs to have it checked before submitting it to a journal, the answer would almost certainly be a resounding ‘no, that’s what peer review is for’. The reasons for differences in communication workflows are complex, they’re related to incentive structures, culture and history, and in some senses, the way that press offices and the media react to biology news.

Next week’s post will explore some of the differences between how biology and physics discussions play out in private vs in public, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you with the question of whether we should separate dissemination from accreditation and if we do, how do we ensure quality?