Thursday 28 February 2013

Steve Pettifer's break-up letter: Dear Publisher...

Pettifer: with a break-up letter to the journal
Steve Pettifer, from the School of Computer Science at the University of Manchester, offered a break-up letter to the journal for the audience of Ignore Your Authors at Your Peril seminar today. Pettifer believes that there's a simple equation for his career:

Ability to do science = funding x cleverness

Likelihood of funding =
(previous ideas x prestige) + new idea

Is it about ego? Possibly. This is where scholarly communications come in. As an academic and researcher he has to convince funders that he is a good person to take an idea forward that will help change the world. When he started as a researcher, it was the end of the old style of publishing, a time when it felt weird when things started to go online.

The challenge now is that researchers operate in a landscape of goodness or importance and managing the transition from one to another without dropping your research status is tough. Every now and again, something comes along that changes the environment, that enables them to get to their goal. Open access might just be that disruptive force (for publishers) that works (for researchers).

So what are the things that publishers tell him that they do for him?
  • peer review
  • copyediting
  • typesetting
  • visibility
  • legal support.
Yet for each of these valuable services, there are poor examples that undermine the statement. A recent study into peer review demonstrated that only one third agreed on the science with one third signal to two thirds noise. That is itself not a bad thing, but it's not compelling evidence of the value and efficacy of peer review for the scientific record. (Source: Peer Review: Welch, Ivo. 12 October 2012 Referree Recommendations, Social Science Research)

Pettifer quoted Kent Anderson from a recent post on Scholarly Kitchen that asked how science can maintain integrity if papers are buried in 'mega journals' and don't have full peer review? In reality, Pettifer says, he has never cited a paper because of its peer reviewed status. He then went on to mention Alan Singleton in a recent Learned Publishing article. In it, Singleton had paraphrased feedback during peer review, as the essence of its definition. It was something along the lines of: 'the methods are OK, I don't agree with the result, so it should be published for others to repeat or test the experiment.'

Pettifer went on to discuss copyediting: it's not always great, there are numerous examples available of poor grammar in headings from great and good publications. There are some fundamental errors that are made in typesetting, for example, the confusion of German ß rather than β. These things stand out and undermine claims of a valuable, quality service to authors.

He asked publishers to be clear about the relationship between them both. Understand that sometimes it is almost impossible for authors to comply with even the most basic requirements (with ebooks or epapers, it is impossible to comply with making only one copy, as soon as you download, your devices will sync).

He asked publishers to embrace new things. He called for them to move on from the journal impact factor. Many think it is rubbish. And there are lots of other exciting things coming along that are great measures for a researcher including: Impact Story, DataONE, figshare, Altmetric, ORCID, using DOI, and Dryad, that aim to make papers more readable.

He also stated that the object of record is for machines. While he is nerdy, and it matters a lot to him, it is not for humans. Make it available for machines to reference and search.

Pettifer wants publishers to recognise he is an individual and author, reader, editor and reviewer. Help him communicate his work, and help him to make his work better. He believes that BioMedCentral has not moved on much; PLOS is still quite traditional; eLife is too, but is aiming for higher quality. PeerJ is exciting, and arXiv - while just a way to put pre-published papers online - works for physicists. PeerJ and eLife have set the bar high in technology (readability and downloadable objects) with a combination of good technology and presentation.

What do all publishers need to do? Make publishing a service, not an ordeal.

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