Monday, March 13, 2017

Creative Destruction by Social Network bills itself as a platform for scholars to share their research. As a start-up, it still provides mostly free services to attract more users. Last year, it tried to make some money by selling recommendations to scholarly papers, but the backlash from academics was swift and harsh. That plan was shelved immediately. [Scholars Criticize Proposal to Charge Authors for Recommendations]

All scholarly publishers sell recommendations, albeit artfully packaged in prestige and respectability.'s direct approach seemed downright vulgar. If they plan a radically innovative replacement for journals, they will need a subtler approach. At least, they chose the perfect target for an attempt at creative destruction: Scholarly communication is the only type of publishing not disrupted by the web, it has sky-high profit margins, it is inefficient, and it is dominated by a relatively few well-connected insiders.

If properly designed (and that is a big if), a scholarly network could reduce the cost of all aspects of scholarly communication, even without radical innovation. It could improve the delivery of services to scholars. It could increase (open) access to research. And it could do all of this while scholars retain control over their own output for as long as feasible and/or appropriate. A scholarly network could also increase the operational efficiency of participating universities, research labs, and funding agencies.

All components of such a system already exist in some form:

Personal archive. Academics are already giving away ownership of their published works to publishers. They should not repeat this historic mistake by giving social networks control over their unpublished writings, data, and scholarly correspondence. They should only participate in social networks that make it easy to pack up and leave. Switching or leaving networks should be as simple as downloading an automatically created personal archive of everything the user shared on the network. Upon death or incapacity, the personal archive and perhaps the account itself should transfer to an archival institution designated by the user.

Marketplace for research tools. Every discipline has its own best practices. Every research group has its preferred tools and information resources. All scholars have their idiosyncrasies. To accomplish this level of customization, a universal platform needs an app store, where scholars could obtain apps that provide reference libraries, digital lab notebooks, data analysis and management, data visualization, collaborative content creation, communication, etc.

Marketplace for professional services. Sometimes, others can do the work better, faster, and/or cheaper. Tasks that come to mind are reference services, editorial and publishing services, graphics, video production, prototyping, etc.

Marketplace for institutional services. All organizations manage some business processes that need to be streamlined. They can do this faster and cheaper by sharing their solutions. For example, universities might be interested to buy and/or exchange applications that track PhD theses as they move through the approval process, that automatically deposit faculty works into their institutional repositories, that manage faculty-research review processes, that assist the preparation of grant applications, and that manage the oversight of awarded research grants. Funding agencies might be interested in services to accept and manage grant applications, to manage peer review, and to track post-award research progress.

Certificates. When a journal accepts a paper, it produces an unalterable version of record. This serves as an implied certificate from the publisher. When a university awards a degree, it certifies that the student has attended the university and has completed all degree requirements. Incidentally, it also certifies the faculty status of exam-committee members. Replacing implicit with explicit certificates would enable new services, such as CVs in which every paper, every academic position, and every degree is certified by the appropriate authority.

A scholarly network like this is a specialized business-application exchange, a concept pioneered by the AppExchange of Every day, thousands of organizations replace internal business processes with more efficient applications. Over time, this creates a gradual cumulative effect: Business units shrink to their essential core. They disappear or merge with other units. Corporate structures change. Whether or not we are prepared for the consequences of these profound changes, these technology-enabled efficiencies advance unrelentingly across all industries.

These trends will, eventually, affect everyone. While touting the benefits of creative destruction in their journals, the scholarly-communication system successfully protected itself. Like PDF, the current system is a digitally replication the paper system. It ignores the flexibility of digital information, while it preserves the paper-era business processes and revenue streams of publishers, middlemen, and libraries.

Most scholars manage several personal digital libraries for their infotainment. Yet, they are restricted by the usage terms of institutional site licenses for their professional information resources. [Where the Puck won't be] When they share papers with colleagues and students, they put themselves at legal risk. Scholarly networks will not solve every problem. They will have unintended consequences. But, like various open-access projects, they are another opportunity for scholars to reclaim the initiative.

Recently, ResearchGate obtained serious start-up funding. [ResearchGate raises $52.6M for its social research network for scientists] I hope more competitors will follow. Organizations and projects like ArXiv, Figshare, Mendeley, Web of Knowledge, and Zotero have the technical expertise, user communities, and platforms on which to build. There are thousands of organizations that can contribute to marketplaces for research tools, professional services, and institutional services. There are millions of scholars eager for change.

Build it, and they will come... Or they will just use Sci-Hub anyway.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Simpler Times

“The Library of Congress is worried about the exponential growth of the number of journals. By 2025, their shelves will fill up faster than the speed of light. However, a professor of physics assured them there was no problem: exceeding the speed of light is allowed when no information is transmitted.” 

There are references to variations of this joke as far back as 1971. I first heard it in 1983 or 1984, when I was a graduate student. This is how I learned that some academics were concerned about the state of scholarly communication.

In simpler times, the values of publishing and scholarship were well aligned. The number of slots in respected journals was extremely limited, and fierce competition for those slots raised the quality and substance of papers. As publishers became more efficient and savvy, they created more journals and accepted more papers. Scholars competing in the academic job market were always eager to contribute ever more papers. As scholars published more, hiring committees demanded more. A vicious cycle with no end in sight.

It is doubtful that the typical scholar of 2016 produces more good ideas than the typical scholar of 1956. The former certainly writes a lot more papers than the latter. The publish-or-perish culture reduced the scholarly paper to a least publishable unit. The abundance of brain sneeze is correlated with several other issues. Many reported results cannot be reproduced. [A Joke Syllabus With a Serious Point: Cussing Away the Reproducibility Crisis] A growing number of papers are retracted for fraud and serious errors. [Retraction Watch] Clinical trials are hidden when they do not have the desired results. [AllTrials] Fake journals scam honest-but-naive scholars, embellish the scholarly records of fraudulent scholars, and/or provide the sheen of legitimacy to bad research. [Beall's List]

This race to the bottom was financed by universities through their libraries. Every year, they paid higher subscription prices to more journals. In the 1990s, library budgets spiraled out of control and finally caught the attention of university administrators. This was also when the internet grew exponentially. Scholars who realized the web's potential demanded barrier-free online access to research. The Open Access (OA) movement was born.

Good scholarship is elitist: we expect scholars to gain status and influence for getting it right, particularly when they had to fight against majority opinion. Journals are essential components in the arbitration of this elitism. Yet, even well before the OA movement, it was in the publishers' interest to lower the barriers of publishing: every published paper incentivizes its authors to lobby their institutions in favor of a journal subscription.

Gold OA journals [Directory of Open Access Journals] with business models that do not rely on subscription revenue made the problem worse. They were supposed to kill and replace subscription journals. Instead, subscription journals survived virtually intact. Subscriptions did not disappear. Their impact factors did not fall even after competing Gold OA journals scaled the impact-factor ladder. The net result of Gold OA is more opportunities to publish in high-impact-factor journals.

The Green OA strategy had a plausible path to reverse the growth of journals: libraries might be able to drop some subscriptions if scholars should shift their use to Green OA institutional repositories (IRs). [OAI Registered Data Providers] This outcome now seems unlikely. I previously argued that IRs are obsolete, and that the Green OA strategy needs social networks that create a network effect by serving individual scholars, not their institutions. [Let IR RIP] In an excellent response by Poynder and Lynch [Q&A with CNI’s Clifford Lynch: Time to re-think the institutional repository?], we learned how some academic libraries are contracting with Elsevier to manage their IRs. They seem to have given up on Green OA as a strategy to reclaim ownership of the scholarly literature from publishers. They have pivoted their IRs towards a different and equally important goal: increasing the visibility and accessibility of theses, archives, technical papers, lab notebooks, oral histories, etc.

The OA movement tried to accomplish meaningful change of the scholarly-communication system with incremental steps that preserve continuity. I called it isentropic disruption. [Isentropic Disruption] However, scholarly publishers have proven extra-ordinarily immune to any pressure. Just the transition to digital wiped out every other kind of publisher. Scholarly publishers did not even change their business model. They also brushed off reproducibility and fraud scandals. They survived boycotts and editorial-board resignations. They largely ignored Green and Gold OA. Perhaps, the OA movement just needs more time. Perhaps, the OA movement is falling victim to a sunk-cost fallacy.

The current system is financially not sustainable and, worse, is bad for scholarship. Within the shared-governance structure of universities, it is virtually impossible to take disruptive action in the absence of immediate crisis. Universities tend to postpone such decisions until no alternative remains. Then, they inflict maximum pain by implementing unplanned change overnight.

Yet, there are options available right now. With time to plan a transition, there would be much less collateral damage. For example, I proposed replacing library site licenses with personal subscriptions to iTunes-like services for academics. [Where the Puck won't be] Personal digital libraries would be much easier to use than the current site-licensed monstrosities. With scholars as direct customers, the market for these services would be extremely competitive. By configuring and using their personal library, scholars would create market-driven limits on the number of available publication slots. Those willing to consider out-of-the-box crazy approaches can even achieve such limits within an OA context. [Market Capitalism and Open Access]

Academics created the problem. Only academics can solve it. Not libraries. Not publishers. Digital journals are already filling the virtual shelves at the speed of light... The punch line of the joke is in sight.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


The Institutional Repository (IR) is obsolete. Its flawed foundation cannot be repaired. The IR must be phased out and replaced with viable alternatives.

Lack of enthusiasm. The number of IRs has grown because of a few motivated faculty and administrators. After twenty years of promoting IRs, there is no grassroots support. Scholars submit papers to an IR because they have to, not because they want to. Too few IR users become recruiters. There is no network effect.

Local management. At most institutions, the IR is created to support an Open Access (OA) mandate. As part of the necessary approval and consensus-building processes, various administrative and faculty committees impose local rules and exemptions. After launch, the IR is managed by an academic library accountable only to current faculty. Local concerns dominate those of the worldwide community of potential users.

Poor usability. Access-, copy-, reuse, and data-mining rights are overly restrictive or left unstated. Content consists of a mishmash of formats. The resulting federation of IRs is useless for serious research. Even the most basic queries cannot be implemented reliably. National IRs (like PubMed) and disciplinary repositories (like ArXiv) eliminate local idiosyncrasies and are far more useful. IRs were supposed to duplicate their success, while spreading the financial burden and immunizing the system against adverse political decisions. The sacrifice in usability is too high a price to pay.

Low use. Digital information improves with use. Unused, it remains stuck in obsolete formats. After extended non-use, recovering information requires a digital version of archaeology. Every user of a digital archive participates in its crowd-sourced quality control. Every access is an opportunity to discover, report, and repair problems. To succeed at its archival mission, a digital archive must be an essential research tool that all scholars need every day.

High cost. Once upon a time, the IR was a cheap experiment. Today's professionally managed IR costs far too much for its limited functionality.

Fragmented control. Over the course of their careers, most scholars are affiliated with several institutions. It is unreasonable to distribute a scholar's work according to where it was produced. At best, it is inconvenient to maintain multiple accounts. At worst, it creates long-term chaos to comply with different and conflicting policies of institutions with which one is no longer affiliated. In a cloud-computing world, scholars should manage their own personal repositories, and archives should manage the repositories of scholars no longer willing or able.

Social interaction. Research is a social endeavor. [Creating Knowledge] Let us be inspired by the titans of the network effect: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Encourage scholars to build their personal repository in a social-network context. Disciplinary repositories like ArXiv and SSRN can expand their social-network services. Social networks like, Mendeley, Zotero, and Figshare have the capability to implement and/or expand IR-like services.

Distorted market. Academic libraries are unlikely to spend money on services that compete with IRs. Ventures that bypass libraries must offer their services for free. In desperation, some have pursued (and dropped) controversial alternative methods of monetizing their services. [Scholars Criticize Proposal to Charge Authors for Recommendations]

Many academics are suspicious of any commercial interests in scholarly communication. Blaming publishers for the scholarly-journal crisis, they conveniently forget their own contribution to the dysfunction. Willing academics, with enthusiastic help from publishers, launch ever more journals.[Hitler, Mother Teresa, and Coke] They also pressure libraries to site license "their" journals, giving publishers a strong negotiation position. Without library-paid site licenses, academics would have flocked to alternative publishing models, and publishers would have embraced alternative subscription plans like an iTunes for scholarly papers. [Where the Puck won't be] [What if Libraries were the Problem?] Universities and/or governments must change how they fund scholarly communication to eliminate the marketplace distortions that preserve the status quo, protect publishers, and stifle innovation. In a truly open market of individual subscriptions, start-up ventures would thrive.

I believed in IRs. I advocated for IRs. After participating in the First Meeting of the Open Archives Initiative (1999, Santa Fe, New Mexico), I started a project that would evolve into Caltech CODA. [The Birth of the Open Access Movement] We encouraged, then required, electronic theses. We captured preprints and historical documents. [E-Journals: Do-It-Yourself Publishing]

I was convinced IRs would disrupt scholarly communication. I was wrong. All High Energy Physics (HEP) papers are available in ArXiv. Being a disciplinary repository, ArXiv functions like an idealized version of a federation of IRs. It changed scholarly communication for the better by speeding up dissemination and improving social interaction, but it did not disrupt. On the contrary, HEP scholars organized what amounted to an an authoritarian take-over of the HEP scholarly-journal marketplace. While ensuring open access of all HEP research, this take-over also cemented the status quo for the foreseeable future. [A Physics Experiment] 

The IR is not equivalent with Green Open Access. The IR is only one possible implementation of Green OA. With the IR at a dead end, Green OA must pivot towards alternatives that have viable paths forward: personal repositories, disciplinary repositories, social networks, and innovative combinations of all three.

*Edited 7/26/2016 to correct formatting errors.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Creating Knowledge

Every scholar is part wizard, part muggle.

As wizards, scholars are lone geniuses in search of original insight. They question everything. They ignore conventional wisdom and tradition. They experiment.

As muggles, scholars are subject to the normal rules of power and influence. They are limited by common sense and group think. They are ambitious. They promote and market their ideas. They have the perfect elevator pitch ready for every potential funder of research. They connect their research to hot fields. They climb the social ladder in professional societies. As muggles, they know that the lone voice is probably wrong.

The sad fate of the wizards is that their discoveries, no matter how significant, are not knowledge until accepted by the muggles.

Einstein stood on the shoulder of giants: he needed all of the science that preceded him. First, he needed it to develop special relativity theory. Then, he needed it as a starting point from where to lead the physics community on an intellectual journey. Without that base of prior shared knowledge, they would not have followed.

As a social construct, knowledge moves at a speed limited by the wisdom of the crowd. The real process by which scholarly research moves from the world of the wizard into the world of muggles is murky, complicated, longwinded, and ambiguous. Despising these properties, muggles created a clear and straightforward substitute: the peer-review process.

When only a small number of distinguished scholarly bodies published journals, publishing signaled that the research was widely accepted as valid and important. Today, thousands of scholarly groups and commercial entities publish as many as 28,000 scholarly journals, and publishing no longer functions as a serious proxy for wide acceptance.

Most journals are created when some researchers believe established journals ignore or do not sufficiently support a new field of inquiry. New journals give new fields the time and space to grow and to prove themselves. They also reduce the size of the referee pool. They avoid generalists critical of the new field. Gradually, peer review becomes a process in which likeminded colleagues distribute stamps of approval to each other.

Publishers thrive by amplifying scholarly fractures and by creating scholarly islands. As discussed in previous blog posts, normal free-market principles do not apply to the scholarly-journal market. [What if Libraries were the Problem] Without an effective method to kill off journals, their number and size keep increasing. Unfortunately, the damage to universities and to scholarship far exceeds the cost of journals.

Niche fields use their success in the scholarly-communication market to acquire departmental status, making the scholarly fracture permanent. The economic crisis may have stopped or reversed the trend of ever more specialized, smaller, university departments, but the increased cost structure inherited from the boom years lingers. Creating a new department should be an exceptional event. Universities went overboard, influenced and pressured by commercial interests.

As a quality-control system, the scholarly-communication system should be conservative and skeptical. As a communication system, it should give exposure to new ideas and give them a chance to develop. By simultaneously pursuing two contradictory goals, scholarly journals have become ineffective at both. They are too specialized to be credible validators. They are too slow and bureaucratic for growing new ideas.

Journals survive because universities use them for assessment. Not surprisingly, scholarly papers solidly reside in muggle world. Too many papers are written by Very Serious Intellectuals (VSIs) for VSIs. Too many papers are written in self-aggrandizing pompous prose, loaded with countless footnotes. Too many papers are written to flatter VSIs with too many irrelevant references. Too many papers are written to puff up a tidbit of incremental information. Too many papers are written. Too few papers detail negative results or offer serious critique, because that only makes enemies.

When given the opportunity, scholarly authors produce awe inspiring presentations. The edutainment universe of TED Talks may not be an appropriate forum for the daily grunt work of the scholar, but is it really too much to ask that the scholarly-communication system let the wizardry shine through?

Universities claim to be society's engines of innovation. They have preached the virtues of creative destruction brought on by technological innovation. Yet, the wizards of the ivory tower resist minor change as much as the muggles of the world.

Open Access is catalyzing reform on the business side of the scholarly-communication system. Will Open Access be enough to push universities into experimentation on the scholarly side?

That is an Open question.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Metadata Bubble

In an ideal world, scholars deposit their papers in an Open Access repository, because they know it will advance their research, support their students, and promote a knowledge-based society. A few disciplinary repositories, like ArXiv, have shown that it is possible to close the virtuous cycle where scholars reinforce each other's Open Access habits. In these communities, no authority is needed to compel participation.

Institutional repositories have yet to build similar broad-based enthusiastic constituencies. Yet, many Open Access advocates believe that the decentralized approach of institutional repositories creates a more scalable system with a higher probability for long-term survival. The campaign to enact institutional deposit mandates hopes to jump start an Open Access virtuous cycle for all scholarly disciplines and all institutions. The risk of such a campaign is that it may backfire if scholars should experience Open Access as an obligation with few benefits. For long-term success, most scholars must perceive their compelled participation in Open Access as a positive experience.

It is, therefore, crucial that repositories become essential scholarly resources, not dark archives to be opened only in case of emergency. The Open Archives Initiative (OAI) repository design provided what was thought to be the necessary architecture. Unfortunately, we are far from realizing its anticipated potential. The Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) allows service providers to harvest any metadata in any format, but most repositories provide only minimal Dublin Core metadata, a format in which most fields are optional and several are ambiguous. Extremely few repositories enable Object Reuse and Exchange (OAI-ORE), which allows for complex inter-repository services through the exchange of multimedia objects, not just metadata about them. As a result, OAI-enabled services are largely limited to the most elementary kind of searches, and even these often deliver unsatisfactory results, like metadata-only placeholder records for works restricted by copyright or other considerations.

In a few years, we will entrust our life and limb to self-driving cars. Their programs have just milliseconds to compute critical decisions based on information that is imprecise, approximate, incomplete, and inconsistent: all maps are outdated by the time they are produced, GPS signals may disappear, radar and/or lidar signatures are ambiguous, and video or images provide obstructed views in constantly changing environments. When we can extract so much actionable information from such "dirty" information, it seems quaint to obsess about metadata.

Databases automatically record user interactions. Users fill out forms and effectively crowdsource metadata. Expert systems can extract, from any document in any format and in any language, author information, citations, keywords, DNA sequences, chemical formulas, mathematical equations, etc. Other expert systems have growing capabilities to analyze sound, image, and video. Technology is evaporating the pool of problems that require human intervention at the transaction level. The opportunities for human metadata experts to add value are disappearing fast.

The metadata approach is obsolete for an even more fundamental reason. Metadata are the digital extension of a catalog-centered paper-based information system. In this kind of system, today's experts organize today's information so tomorrow's users may solve tomorrow's problems efficiently. This worked well when technology changed slowly, when experts could predict who the future users would be, what kind of problems they would like to solve, and what kind of tools they would have at their disposal. These conditions no longer apply.

When digital storage is cheap, why implement expensive selection processes for an archive? When search technology does not care whether information is excruciatingly organized or piled in a heap, why spend countless hours organizing and curating content? Why agonize over potential future problems with unreadable file formats? Preserve all the information about current software and standards, and start developing the expert systems to unscramble any historical format. Think of any information-management task. How reasonable is the proposition that this task will require direct human intervention in two years? In five years? In ten years?

For content, more is more. We must acquire as much content as possible, and store it safely.

For content administration, less is more. Expert systems give us the freedom to do the bare minimum and to make a mess of it. While we must make content useful and enable as many services as possible, it is no longer feasible to accomplish that by designing systems for an anticipated future. Instead, we must create the conditions that attract developers of expert systems. This is remarkably simple: Make the full text and all data available with no strings attached.

Real Open Access.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Disruption Disrupted?

The professor who books his flights online, reserves lodging with Airbnb, and arranges airport transportation with Uber understands the disruption of the travel industry. He actively supports that disruption every time he attends a conference. When MOOCs threaten his job, when The Economist covers reinventing the university and titles it “Creative Destruction", that same professor may have second thoughts. With or without disruption, academia surely is in a period of immense change. There is the pressure to reduce costs and tuition, the looming growth of MOOCs, the turmoil in scholarly communication (subscription prices, open access, peer review, alternative metrics), the increased competition for funding, etc.

The term disruption was coined and popularized by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma. [The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business Review Press, 1997] Christensen created a compelling framework for understanding the process of innovation and disruption. Along the way, he earned many accolades in academia and business. In recent years, a cooling of the academic admiration became increasingly noticeable. A snide remark here. A dismissive tweet there. Then, The New Yorker launched a major attack on the theory of disruption. [The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, June 23rd, 2014] In this article, Harvard historian Jill Lepore questions Christensen's research by attacking the underlying facts. Were Christensen's disruptive startups really startups? Did the established companies really lose the war or just one battle? At the very least, Lepore is implying that Christensen misled his readers.

As of this writing, Christensen has only responded in a brief interview. [Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of 'Disruptive Innovation', Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20th, 2014] It is clear he is preparing a detailed written response.

Lepore's critique appears at the moment when disruption may be at academia's door, seventeen years after The Innovator's Dilemma was published, much of the research almost twenty years old. Perhaps, the article is merely a symptom of academics growing nervous. Yet, it would be wrong to dismiss Lepore's (or anyone other's) criticism based on any perceived motivation. Facts can be and should be examined.

In 1997, I was a technology manager tasked with dragging a paper-based library into the digital era. When reading (and re-reading) the book, I did not question the facts. When Christensen stated that upstart X disrupted established company Y, I accepted it. I assume most readers did. The book was based on years of research, all published in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals. It is reasonable to assume that the underlying facts were scrutinized by several independent experts. Truth be told, I did not care much that his claims were backed by years of research. Christensen gave power to the simple idea that sticking with established technology can carry an enormous opportunity cost.

Established technology has had years, perhaps decades, to mitigate its weaknesses. It has a constituency of users, service providers, sales channels, and providers of derivative services. This constituency is a force that defends the status quo in order to maintain established levels of quality, profit margins, and jobs. The innovators do not compete on a level playing field. Their product may improve upon the old in one or two aspects, but it has not yet had the opportunity to mitigate its weaknesses. When faced with such innovations, all organizations tend to stick with what they know for as long as possible.

Christensen showed the destructive power of this mind set. While waiting until the new is good enough or better, organizations lose control of the transition process. While pleasing their current customers, they lose future customers. By not being ahead of the curve, by ignoring innovation, by not restructuring their organizations ahead of time, leaders may put their organizations at risk. Christensen told compelling disruption stories in many different industries. This allowed readers to observe their own industry with greater detachment. It gave readers the confidence to push for early adoption of inevitable innovation.

I am not about to take sides in the Lepore-Christensen debate. Neither needs my help. As an observer interested in scholarly communication, I cannot help but noting that Lepore, a distinguished scholar, launched her critique from a distinctly non-scholarly channel. The New Yorker may cater to the upper-crust of intellectuals (and wannabes), but it remains a magazine with journalistic editorial-review processes, quite distinct from scholarly peer-review processes.

Remarkably, the same happened only a few weeks ago, when the Financial Times attempted to take down Piketty's book. [Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, Belknap Press; 2014]  [Piketty findings undercut by errors, Chris Giles, Financial Times, May 23rd, 2014] Piketty had a distinct advantage over Christensen. The Financial Times critique appeared a few weeks after his book came out. Moreover, he had made all of his data public, including all technical adjustments required to make data from different sources compatible. As a result, Piketty was able to respond quickly, and the controversy quickly dissipated. Christensen has the unenviable task of defending twenty-year old research. For his sake, I hope he was better at archiving data than I was in the 1990s.

What does it say about the status of scholarly journals when scholars use magazines to launch scholarly critiques? Was Lepore's article not sufficiently substantive for a peer-reviewed journal? Are scholarly journals incapable or unwilling to handle academic controversy involving one of its eminent leaders? Is the mainstream press just better at it? Would a business journal even allow a historian to critique business research in its pages? If this is the case, is peer review less about maintaining standards and more about protecting an academic tribe? Is the mainstream press just a vehicle for some scholars to bypass peer review and academic standards? What would it say about peer review if Lepore's arguments should prevail?

This detached observer pours a drink and enjoys the show.

PS (7/15/2014): Reposted with permission at The Impact Blog of The London School of Economics and Political Science.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Billionaires, Part 1: Elon Musk

Elon Musk did not need a journal to publicize his Hyperloop paper. [Hyperloop Alpha] No journal can create the kind of buzz he creates on his own. He did not need the validation of peer review; he had the credibility of his research teams that already revolutionized travel on earth and to space. He did not need the prestige of a journal's brand; he is his own brand.

Any number of journals would have published this paper by this author. They might even have expedited their review process. Yet, journals could hardly have done better than the public-review process that actually took place. Within days, experts from different disciplines had posted several insightful critiques. By now, there are too many to list. A journal would have insisted that the paper include author(s) and affiliations, a publication date (Aug. 12th, 2013), a bibliography... but those are irrelevant details to someone on a mission to change the world.

Does the Hyperloop paper even qualify as a scholarly paper? Or, is it an engineering-based political pamphlet written to undermine California's high-speed rail project? As a data point for scholarly communication, the Hyperloop paper may be an extreme outlier, but it holds some valuable lessons for the scholarly-communication community.

The gate-keeping role of journals is permanently over.

Neither researchers nor journalists rely on scholarly editors to dismiss research on their behalf.

In many disciplines, day-to-day research relies more on the grey literature (preprints, technical reports, even blogs and mailing lists) than on journal articles. In other words, researchers commit considerable time to refereeing one another, but they largely ignore each other's gate keeping. When it matters, they prefer immediacy over gate keeping and their own gate keeping over someone else's.

The same is true for journalists. If the story is interesting, it does not matter whether it comes from an established journal or the press release of a venture capitalist. Many journalists balance their reports with comments from neutral or adversarial experts. This practice may satisfy a journalistic concept of objectivity, but giving questionable research "equal treatment" may elevate it to a level it does not deserve.

Public review can be fast and effective. 

The web-based debate on Hyperloop remained remarkably professional and civil. Topics that attract trolls and conspiracy theorists may benefit from a more controlled discussion environment, but the public forum worked well for Hyperloop. The many critiques provide skeptical, but largely constructive, feedback that bold new ideas need.

Speculative papers that spark the imagination do not live by the stodgy rules of peer review.

The Hyperloop paper would be a success if its only accomplishment is inspiring a handful of young engineers to research radically different modes of mass transportation. Unfortunately, publishing speculative, incomplete, sloppy, or bad research may cause real harm. The imagined link between vaccines and autism (published in a peer-reviewed journal and later retracted) serves as an unhappy reminder of the latter.

Not all good research belongs in the scholarly record.

This episode points to an interactive future of scholarly communication. After the current public discussion, Hyperloop may gain acceptance, and engineering journals may publish many papers about it. Alternatively, the idea may die a quiet death, perhaps documented by one or more historical review papers (or books).

The ideal research paper solves a significant problem with inspiration (creative bold ideas) and perspiration (proper methodology, reproducibility, accuracy). Before that ideal is in sight, researchers travel long winding roads with many detours and dead ends. Most papers are small incremental steps along that road. A select few represent milestone research.

The de-facto system to identify milestone research is journal prestige. No journal could survive if it advertised itself as a place for routine research. Instead, the number of journals has exploded, and each journal claims high prestige for the narrowest of specializations. All of these journals treat all submissions as if they are milestone research and apply the same costly and inefficient refereeing processes across the board.

The cost of scholarly communication is more than the sum of subscriptions and page charges. While refereeing can be a valuable experience, there is a point of diminishing returns. Moreover, overwhelmed scholars are more likely to conduct only cursory reviews after ignoring the requests for extended periods. The expectation that all research deserves to be refereed has reduced the quality of the refereeing process, introduced inordinate delays, increased the number of journals, and indirectly increased the pressure to publish.

Papers should earn the privilege to be refereed. By channeling informal scholarly communication to social-network platforms, research can gain some scholarly weight based on community feedback and usage-based metrics. Such social networks, perhaps run by scholarly societies, would provide a forum for lively debate, and they could act as submission and screening systems for refereed journals. By restricting refereed journals to milestone research supported and validated by a significant fraction of the profession, we would need far fewer, less specialized journals.

A two-tier system would provide the immediacy and openness researchers crave, while reserving the highest level of scrutiny to research that has already shown significant promise.