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Journal publishers are pioneers of Web 2.0

Zhigang Suo's picture

Eric Mockensturm has just posted a publication agreement proposed by provosts of several universities. In structuring iMechanica, we have tried to avoid the question of open access, and simply asked the question what if all papers are already openly accessible. Many mechanicians have discovered iMechanica, and the registered users have recently passed 1000. Recent discussions of copyright on iMechanica have prompted Eric to post his entry, which has just led to this one.

For some time, publisher-bashing has filled gaps in lunch-time conversations among researchers. On the surface, the situation looks rather absurd. Researchers write articles, which are then distributed by publishers, at a price, back to the researchers. Before the arrival of the Internet, this practice was easy to justify: distributing printed materials cost money. In the time of the Internet, this practice becomes questionable.

There seem to be two obvious questions: cost and accessibility. The question of cost is complex, and will be settled only when new business models equilibrate with the new technologies. Someone has to pay, if not for distribution, but for costs associated with running journals and pursuing technological innovations. As an example, open-access journals such as PloS charge authors a fee for publishing a paper. Similar options are offered by Applied Physics Letters and Journals of Applied Physics, as well as selected Elsevier journals. The price tags vary, but are on the order of $1000s. An author can pay to have her article openly accessible.

The model of open access paid by authors puts yet another burden on the researchers to raise additional money. Furthermore, I don't believe it requires a revolution to make articles universally accessible. They already are, although sometimes messy to get what you want. For every paper, the publisher offers a page like this, which is openly accessible and contains the abstract of the paper and information of the authors. If a paper belongs to a journal you or your institution subscribe to, you can download the paper. If you do not have access to the journal, you can contact the author by email to request for an electronic copy. If the paper is too old and you cannot contact the author, you can buy the article.

Of course, the process is sometimes annoyingly cumbersome. But many issues can be resolved by software engineering. For example, this web page of a paper does not allow you to download the full text of the paper, but your institution subscribes to IJSS, the journal that publishes this paper, so that you can localize the above web page by inserting a proxy string, and then download the paper. If the process sounds too technical to you, it is exactly the point: the issue can be resolved by soft engineering, which can be simplified if someone puts effort into it. No drastic change of business model is necessary. In fact, Google Scholar now has a feature that automatically localizes a web page of a journal. One can also imagine an Amazon-like entity to sell individual papers. With one click, a researcher will download the paper, with the bill directly sent to the accounting department of her institution.

In the middle of the Web 2.0 hype, we tend to forget that journal publishers are the pioneers of Web 2.0. They fit the essential characteristic of Web 2.0: Publishers provide a platform for users to share content created by users themselves. In fact, the publishers have been doing just that long before the Internet. They have even long recognized The Long Tail of their business by creating so many journals to make sure that everything publishable do get published. They had the vision (not to mention the business interest), despite the complaints by distinguished mechanicians like Eli Sternberg about the upcoming International Journal of Shear Stress.  Also, services like the Web of Science have long been harvesting The Wisdom of Crowds, and exploiting collective behavior of users to rank contents and users.

Like all Web 2.0 businesses, journal publishers will have to yield to wishes of the users (i.e., the researchers), sooner or later. It is entirely possible that, in not too distant future, the most profitable and user-friendly business model in this space is open access. I'm optimistic that the journal publishers, in pursuing their enlightened self-interest, will continue to pioneer innovations in the Age of Web x.0.

To help our colleagues and friends in the business of journal publishing, perhaps we should act like users of any Web 2.0 services, and write a list of items that we wish that they provide. The provosts's agreement posted by Eric is an example of such a user-generated wish list. At this stage, there is no need to converge to a single wish list. Let all users voice complaints and offer suggestions, and let journal publishers (open or closed) compete among themselves, and innovate.

We will all eventually adjust to the new environment of the Internet. The question is how. I grew up in China, and have long known revolution often is less effective than evolution in bringing change, and that peddlers of revolution rarely have anything useful to offer.


You can see my take on just how Web 2.0ish the publishing industry has been so far at Biocurious, where I mostly disagree.

Independent of whether publishers were very Web 2.0 or not, I definitely do agree that the publishing industry is going to have to adjust to the Internet, since it has surely already taken over as the primary distribution channel for scientific content!

Zhigang Suo's picture

Scott Karp argued that the media industry is undergoing a radical division of labor into content creation, on the one hand, and content aggregation and distribution, on the other.

This division of labor has long completed in technical journal publishing. We researchers create content, and they publishers aggregate and distribute content. The kind of innovation that I think they will pursue will be how better to aggregate and distribute content.

All platform services have to serve its users. In this case, the users are principally us researchers. If we have already had means to access most what we want to, then open access will not be a high priority for many of us, no matter how morally attractive the idea is. Just ask an average researcher how much time she is willing to spend on furthering the cause of open access.

Open access will arrive when it becomes the most economical to do so.

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