This article originally appeared on Neil’s Medium page – republished with permission.
A piece recently appeared in the South China Morning Post entitled: “Will the Coronavirus kill off the ‘dinosaur’ world of academic publishing.” As a former representative of another “dinosaur” sector — the record labels, this captured my attention. Is academic publishing truly a dinosaur industry, relying upon artificial scarcity in a time of superabundance — standing in the way of progress that can be achieved at scale through disintermediation and the magic properties of the internet to drive global distribution costs to near zero? Are paywalls to academic literature merely mechanisms for rent-seeking for the provision of access to non-rivalrous information? Or, as the tingling of my Spidey senses suggests, is the world of academic publishing somewhat more complicated? I’ll come to these questions in a moment, but before doing so, I wanted to provide some information about what academic publishers are doing in response to the current crisis.
On March 13, governments from 12 countries, including the United States, called on academic publishers to provide machine readable, non-paywalled, versions of all academic literature that might assist health authorities in addressing COVID-19. “To assist efforts to contain and mitigate the rapidly evolving Covid-19 pandemic, basic science research and innovation will be vital to addressing this global crisis. Given the urgency of the situation, it is particularly important that scientists and the public can access research outcomes as soon as possible.”
The response to this request was swift and extremely impressive, but perhaps even more impressive is that many academic publishers had already taken action six weeks earlier. As reported by The Scientist: “On January, 31 this year, a day after the novel coronavirus was designated a public health emergency of global concern, 94 academic journals, societies, institutes, and companies signed a commitment to making research and data on the disease freely available, at least for the duration of the outbreak.”
Some statements made at the time are worthy of particular attention — see for example Kieran Walsh, a clinical director at the esteemed British Medical Journal (BMJ) who observed that: “we don’t think about commercial aspects during emergencies like this.”
The Scientist also noted that Edward Campion (executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine — NEJM), Walsh, and Heber (editor-in-chief of PLOS One) “all tell The Scientist that the journals are putting in extra effort to expedite peer review of articles related to COVID-19. “We’re getting up to 20 submissions per day on coronavirus, some of which, frankly, are not high-quality reports,” says Campion. “Part of our responsibility is to select what we think is most important for our audience, for the clinical audience and public health audience.”
Fast forward to today, and academic publishers have responded with speed, dexterity and care in making resources available in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Copyright Clearance Center has published, and is constantly updating, a list of links to COVID-19 Resources which reveals the scope of the response from the world of academic publishing. And individual academic publishers and related organizations have been providing updates of their own, including Elsevier which announced that it was providing “full access to its content on its COVID-19 Information Center for PubMed Central and other public health databases to accelerate fight against coronavirus.”
The International Association of STM Publishers also provides an excellent directory for information about the response of the academic publishing community to COVID-19.
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has also posted a link to the COVID-19 related efforts of their member companies, which can be found here.
AAP President and CEO, Maria A. Pallante, recently noted that “As the pandemic continues to threaten and disrupt our lives in unprecedented ways, the point of publishing is clearer than ever and publishers are embracing their responsibilities to the public. Across all sectors we see commercial publishing houses, nonprofit societies, and university presses working to address the crisis, with many publishers creating special programs, flexible licenses, and other initiatives to propel reading, learning, and commerce.”
But of course, getting “information” out quickly isn’t really a solution. Our experiences on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites can attest to that. More information isn’t the answer if the information isn’t properly vetted and useful. In fact, as observed by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we can effectively drown truth in a sea of irrelevance. The dissemination of more information, without regard to its value, is far more likely to add to problems than to help address them. Just ask my friend, David Newhoff, who has an entire blog dedicated to exploring the “illusion of more.” In fact, in many respects, our current obsession with ubiquity that elevates quantity over quality and prioritizes access over production has dramatic consequences on the overall health of societies, and obscures the path to truth, but I digress. Let’s return to an examination of how this plays out in the current scenario.
I want to come back to something that NEJM’s Edward Campion said: “Part of our responsibility is to select what we think is most important for our audience, for the clinical audience and public health audience.” Academic publishers realize that simply opening up the fire hose to uncurated and non-peer reviewed literature would likely have the effect of drowning truth in a sea of irrelevance. In other words, editing, peer-review and curation each play a major role in the dissemination of information that is useful to scientists, policy makers and the general public. We depend — indeed require, points of friction to effectively manage the information flow so that it’s useful to our learning. As such, even in this period of crisis when academic publishers are moving as quickly as possible to get information out to health professionals and the public, they are still mindful of the need for curation and review. And that, as you might imagine in a moment of sober reflection, requires investment. Investment of time, and investment of resources. This is the role of a publisher — a role, I would venture to say, that is more important now than ever given the extent of misinformation and disinformation otherwise available.
So this brings me back to where I started this piece — are academic publishers really dinosaurs standing between information and the public? I would venture to suggest that the answer is a resounding no. There may be a reasonable discussion to be had about the business model of academic publishing. Should this role be played by universities themselves and the costs borne by taxpayers and through tuition while making the final product free for all to use? That’s arguable, but I’m not sure I see the advantage, and until we address problems in our tax system, would likely have a disparate impact on those least able to afford tax increases to pay for the publication of academic research. But at a minimum, let’s have that discussion without pretending that the role played by academic publishers is no longer necessary given developments in technology that facilitate instantaneous global distribution. It’s critical that we understand how the ease of distribution and the flow of mis and disinformation makes the role of independent publishers even that more important to the advancement of science.
Joanna Bryson, Professor of Ethics and Technology at the Hertie School, posted a piece almost a decade ago that captured this brilliantly:
“One of the problems with the age of open access and wikileaks is the idea that everyone can get something for nothing. Stuff costs money. Some things seem free, like Google, but as has often been pointed out, if you aren’t paying for it you aren’t the customer, you are what’s being sold. Google makes money by selling your interests to advertising. That’s OK by me, it’s an exchange of information I’m content with. But I’m not content when we start destroying important parts of our culture.
Academic publishing has provided an important role in moving progress forward in fields for several hundred years now via the mechanism of peer review. It costs money. It isn’t perfect, peer review like any government can be corrupt to various degrees, but is generally better than anarchy…
I know why I value academic publishers — because if you go through my many papers, the ones that are smartest (smarter then me really) are the ones that have had good editing and reviewing. As a computer scientist, that’s only a fraction of my output, so I can compare those articles to the ones with just quick reviews and no edits. I’m glad to have a wide portfolio of publishing options, but I totally see where the value lies in the academic publishers, and I can see the loss our society will suffer if they are driven out of the system.”
Turns out that perhaps dinosaurs are necessary for our survival. Or that dinosaurs are adaptable. Or that sometimes, the past has something important to teach us about ourselves. Or that dinosaurs may not be such an apt description for complex entities that help us to understand the world around us. And that, dear friends, may be the most disruptive thing I’ve offered in awhile.