The scandal of academic publishing

Sorry it’s been so quiet here recently.  I’ve been taken up with writing about the extraordinary exploitative system that is modern academic publishing.  I’ve written lots about it over on my other blog, and also a few articles in non-technical outlets:

But if you only read one article about this issue, I have to recommend quantum physicist Scott Aaronson’s review of The Access Principle, which opens with a devastating metaphor.  Seriously, go and read it.  It’s brilliant.  Also, it will make you furious.

I’ve also been tweeting about this issue a lot: follow me on @SauropodMike if you wish.

Sushi photo by Mike Saechang

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4 responses to “The scandal of academic publishing

  1. The Teleporter one sounds like it’d be my favorite, but I don’t have a lot of time right now so I just went with the angry-rant-disguised-as-a-book-review by Scott Aaronson.

    I was aware of the aggravating problem of not being able to access journal articles and how expensive gaining access can be because it’s negatively affected me before.

    I wasn’t aware of just how bad the situation was though. Nor was I aware that the peer reviewers don’t get paid for their time nor was I aware that the article submitters have to relinquish most or all of their copyright (that seems insane, particularly in the Internet age).

    To me, this is best part of the Scott Aaronson piece:

    Today, many journal articles are online, but are accessible only from schools, companies, and research centers that have bought exorbitantly-priced “institutional subscriptions” to services like Elsevier’s ScienceDirect. I’ve always been amazed by the arrogance of the view that this represents an acceptable solution to the problem of circulating research. Even if the subscriptions cost a reasonable amount (they don’t), and even if the researchers who were “entitled” to them could easily access them away from their workplaces (they can’t), who are we to say that a precocious high-school student, or a struggling researcher in Belarus or Ghana, has no legitimate use for our work? Or if our work is intended only for a small circle of colleagues, then why even bother writing it up? Why invest months of boring, painstaking effort to express, in elegant LaTeX form, what would probably take fifteen minutes to explain to a colleague on a blackboard? How serious are we about scholarship being an eternal conversation that transcends time and space?

    It’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar problem all over again. The first model where only a chosen few are privy to the special knowledge and only those can contribute vs. the other extreme where anyone that wants to can share in the knowledge and try to contribute.

    Of course one counter-argument would be the “what about the crackpots” one. It’s supposed to be significant to be published in a peer reviewed journal because it’s supposed to mean that your research looks good to other experts in the field, and therefore your research is valid.

    I want to skip the strawman part where we point out the obvious–that peer review does not, in fact, actually prevent all bad work from getting through and that it certainly doesn’t stop outright, intentional hoaxing or fraud (see Sokal Hoax.

    Even though that’s true, I think peer review of some form does serve a very valid purpose for helping to separate the wheat from the chaff. Thing is–with modern, neat-o Internet age stuff, there’s no reason why it necessarily follows that peer review requires the information that’s been reviewed to be so very non-free. (E.g. comment moderation systems.)

    //Ok. I feel like I’m sort of making a point, but I might have several paragraphs to go before the ending, but I don’t have time to write them. I’ve got to end this now and move on to other things.//

    Bottom Line: Yeah, the academic world needs to aggressively work to tear down this particular Ivory Tower thing–or at least build a really big bridge over to the real world. The reason: I strongly suspect that the lack of access is by now retarding humanity’s potential for scientific progress. You never know who’ll be the one to come up with the paradigm shifting insight. But you can bet that if only a handful of people even have the opportunity to come up with said insight that the whole process is gonna take a lot longer.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  2. P.S. Regarding the Sokal Hoax–ok so that’s my bad for not practicing enough pre-post review of my own. Apparently, at the time that he perpetrated the hoax, the journal in question did not practice actual peer review. That is to say, when they received that article from a physicist for publication they did not submit said article for review by other physicists. If they had, they might have saved themselves from a lot of embarrassment.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  3. Thanks, Isaac, I am delighted to have kindled your outrage! The teleporter article is probably the one that I like the most, but Academic publishers have become the enemies of science has definitely been the most commented, linked and tweeted. But you were right to go for the Aaronson article if you only had time for one. That’s the article that set the flame to my own righteous wrath on this issue. His game-developer metaphor is spot on.

    You say that “one counter-argument would be the “what about the crackpots” one”. But no. Traditional academic publishers will try to tell you that they provide peer-review (which is the main crackpot filter), but that is not true and never was. Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.. There is no correlation between peer-review rigour and openness/closedness of journals. None. The great majority of open-access journals are peer-reviewed just as stringently as the great majority of closed journals. (Of course there are exceptions in both cases.)

    Finally: “the lack of access is by now retarding humanity’s potential for scientific progress. You never know who’ll be the one to come up with the paradigm shifting insight.” Yes, exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  4. Pingback: Who needs access? You need access! | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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