Working Around the Publishing Industry

Peter Brantley -- October 1st, 2012

Folio from the Talmud
Swissnex, a private/public effort of the Swiss government, has hosted some amazing salons with Science Online Bay Area on new forms of publishing. This past Thursday night, they brought together several cutting edge protagonists creating the next generation of scholarly communication in “Innovations in Academic Publishing and Peer Review.” A web of exciting new companies is rapidly emerging, each reinventing an aspect of how we share the results of science.

The speakers – Pete Binfield of PeerJ; Kristen Fisher Ratan of PLoS One; Sarah Greene of Cancer Commons; and Dan Whaley of Hypothes.is – disputed forms of peer review, time to publication, membership models, and alternative metrics for evaluation. Yet despite the raucousness of experimentation in the future of academic publishing, the sense in San Francisco was of a world entirely different than the traditional linear paradigm that heretofore defined scientific communication. Pete Binfield observed that open access is on path to become the dominant model of academic publishing in about five years. And, as Kristen Fisher Ratan noted, scientists are increasingly working around the existing publishing industry to share their work with others – a sharing that is both more open, and more interactive, than ever before.

Pete Binfield, the co-founder of PeerJ, a new membership based model for peer-reviewed publishing, was the first speaker. He set the stage by stating that “open access is a distribution model, not a business model;” development of many different and competing OA business plans is possible. PLoS One is now the largest academic journal in the world, publishing over 2000 articles a month – about 65-70 percent of its submissions – roughly three percent of the world’s literature in science, technology, and medicine (STM). PeerJ itself is on track to receive its first public submissions by mid-November, with its first publication in January 2013. In PeerJ’s model, scientists become lifetime members of PeerJ by paying a one-time fee, with right to publish a varying number of papers depending on their membership category, in exchange for continuing contributions through submissions, reviews, and commentary.

Kristen Fisher Ratan of PLoS One focused on broader aspects of open scientific culture. She noted new startups like figshare, which delivers a platform for depositing and sharing data either publicly or privately. Some scientists are now using figshare to share live- or near real-time results from their laboratories, inviting the public to comment and reproduce their work well before formal publication. Supporting this new openness, PLoS One, figshare, and the Science Exchange have partnered to launch the Reproducibility Initiative, which helps scientists validate studies for publication or commercialization. Studies are evaluated on a fee-for-service basis, and those successfully reproduced receive a certificate which may be recognized by the publication of record. Yet another new initiative, F1000 Research from the Faculty of 1000, also uses figshare, and specializes in extremely rapid time-to-publication, with modest article processing charges, and a peer review model which is entirely post-publication and heavily reliant on altmetrics.

Sarah Greene spoke next on Cancer Commons, a new collaborative publishing and sharing environment which “brings science to patients, and patients to science.” Based on state of the art knowledge for each cancer, Cancer Commons presents each participating patient with personalized therapy, with researchers testing and refining their models of cancer biology and therapeutics based on the resulting clinical responses. The Commons organization reflects a world where research has a direct and near-immediate impact on people’s lives. It is anti-peer review because learning and research innovation can be retarded by its deliberate pace and attention to metrics such as citation counts or impact factors. In another example, data from failed trials is preserved rather than deprecated because subsequent genomic analysis may require evidence of precisely the few cases in these regimes which did respond successfully to therapeutics.

Sarah referenced Ewan Birney’s The Making of ENCODE, emphasizing that the focus in consortium science has to shift away from the individual’s contribution. “Instead, researchers must focus on creating the best data set they can. Maybe they will use the data, maybe they won’t. What is important is the community resource, not individual success. This requires a shift in perspective to a common goal of data output rather than publications.”

The last speaker of the program was Dan Whaley of Hypothes.is. Through his work, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one could most clearly see the firmament of a new publishing system, comprised of an interlocking set of identity, reputation, and commenting services. Hypothes.is’ goal is “easy access to the best thinking about anything.” Hypothes.is presents a system of meta-moderation, operating on defined domains which could be either research, corpus, or organizationally-centric, and which is capable of learning about annotators, contexts, and reputation through the observation of its participants. It creates an emergent form of peer review that recognizes where people are successful in the lifecycle of participation, and encourages them into appropriate new engagements. Dan specified five key challenges that lie ahead: 1) an effective reputation model; 2) robust intra- and inter-document anchors; 3) interoperability across browsers and publishing systems; 4) a compelling and easy-to-use UI; and 5) the “cold start” problem, where enough contributions have to be built up quickly enough to drive repeated engagement.

Dan Whaley displayed a page from the Talmud, with the original text centered and surrounded by the annotated arguments around it, as an example of a work where the dialogue around the meaning and relevance of a passage creates the value for that passage in and of itself. It is an oft-used example, but still a fitting one. We can permit ourselves a moment of wonder, contemplating how the scholars of old would have approached the task of commentary with the tools which are emerging today. It stirs the mind to think of reputation, identity, annotation, and peer review among the early Rabbis expressed through networked systems. Perhaps, if we can meet our own grand challenges, we stand a chance of creating a new form of engagement with learning. The rabbis, I hope, would be thrilled.

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