ANTEDILUVIAN SCIENCE JOURNALS
POST DATE January 29, 2007, 6 AM
POSTED BY Peter Fiske
Picking up on the thread (of indignation) surrounding the pricing of science journals, let me relate something that I experienced back in the mid-90's when I served on an advisory board for an (unnamed) three-letter scientific society.
I was the youngest member of this august committee and the subject of journal prices and web access came up. My fellow committee members peppered the Executive Director of this organization about getting past articles up on-line. The Director countered that "it was too expensive" to have such articles converted from LaTek or whatever they used for the lay-up. And for the years that the journal was typeset by hand, the issues would need to be scanned and OCR used to get the text. Then someone would have to copy-edit the results. Etc, etc, etc...blah, blah, blah, cost, cost, cost...
When I raised the idea that an on-line journal could be an interactive repository of information, in which contributors could link new data to old articles and build a web of information on a subject, the Executive Director reacted as if I had suggested placing ads for adult movie theatres in the journal. He couldn't get over the idea that a journal wouldn't be directly controlled by an editor (with articles subjected to peer review). No amount of persuasion to "try something out" could get this guy to budge.
Today we have a whole ecosystem of interactive knowledge environments on the web - almost NONE of them emulated or even used by the "traditional" scientific publishers. The sad irony is that the type of work that scientists do is probably most valuable when connected to other scholarly research. The antediluvian attitudes toward publication also persist among scientists themselves.
Clayton Christiansen, a Prof. at Harvard Business School wrote a landmark book a few years back called The Innovator's Dilemma in which he examined the persistent phenomenon of existing incumbent technologies and businesses being eclipsed by new entrants with new technology. Why can't the big powerful incumbents recognize a new technology and adopt it, he wonders? Well, the answer is that incumbents are often trapped by their own customers. Their customers have co-adapted to what the incumbent has to offer and the customers are often the source of resistance to change. As a result, the incumbent often recognizes the entry of a new technology, often even frets about it, but in the end watches passively as the new entrant gobbles up market share until the incumbent is marginalized.
In looking at the situation of scientific journals, one might ask who the customers of these journals are, and what do THEY want? In fact, the customers of these journals are US! And, aparently, WE still like to have our work show up in bound "archival" journals. The higher the impact the better, of course. But, in a pinch (for marginal or low-impact contributions we might feel compelled to submit for publication) we like having narrow, esoteric (and not coincidentally, exhorbitantly priced) journals around to keep our publication numbers up.
My guess is that there is a big generational shift that may already be upon us. Younger scientists who are comfortable with the new medium of the Internet, will gravitate to new modes of scientific publication, while the dinosaurs dwindle in number and publication rate. Inevitably, the expensive printed journal will go the way of the mastadon, but, like everything in academia, the change is likely to be glacial.
It would be interesting to see how the income stream for scientific societies breaks down, both today and in the past. It may be that scientific societies are making more of their money on membership dues, meetings and advertising (such as job ads) rather than print journal subscriptions.