GUEST POST: Publish or Perish... or Reinvent The Square Wheel?
By: Samuel Sumeracki
Samuel Sumeracki currently works for Brown University and is pursuing a Master's degree in communication from Purdue University.
It’s hard to let ideas go - incredibly so. But one important goal of science, of philosophy, of academia, is to open up pathways to discover true knowledge. Conflicting ideas are useful because every idea that is falsified will lead society one step closer to the truth. I say society, because now more than ever, in a world so interwoven and interconnected, it is absolutely unacceptable to think and see through a narrow lens. Here’s a simple truth: blogs and the Internet allow anyone to have a voice, but at this very moment, there are many who espouse ideas contrary to the latest scientific findings. What is science’s response? If anything, it is a peer-reviewed article, filled with jargon and locked behind a paywall.
Academic institutions typically demand their faculty to conduct research and get it published in peer-reviewed journals – preferably those that have a high “impact factor” (in plain English: those that get cited a lot). A key point, too, is that once a researcher submits their work and the publisher accepts it, the researcher signs away their copyright to the publisher.
Because even copyrighted articles can now be shared easily, publishers are becoming more middlemen and less needed. Instead of trying to modernize with the times, however, many of the legacy publishers are holding on to archaic, myopic models that will surely lead to their demise. It’s important to note that a key aspect of academic publication is for the article to be peer-reviewed, which distinguishes it from other work. Peer-review is important because it helps make published information more accurate, reliable, and valid. Important, yes, but, again: this can be done without the help of publishing giants. Peer-reviewers are those knowledgeable about the topic of the work being submitted for publication. Typically, reviewers receive no payment for their services; it is simply viewed as part of your duty in academia, even though when it comes to promotion and tenure, it doesn’t “count” for much. (I’ve even heard of cases where junior faculty were told to decline requests for reviews in order to focus on more pressing tasks such as getting publications – let’s just ponder the irony of that for a moment).
So, let’s recap—journals publish scholarship after it has been reviewed by scholars not on their payroll, then they demand the author sign away the copyright of their work so it may not appear anywhere else. The work is then firmly locked away, typically only accessible by universities or science journalists who are paying exorbitant fees for that access.
Open access journals, which provide peer-reviewed content online for free to the public, are one solution; however, the cost of running this enterprise is shifted to the author in the guise of a “publication fee” (typically around $1,000+ per article). Of course, someone has to pay to make open access a possibility; but there is an injustice in charging the author, who in order to get promoted and keep their job, must publish. If the academic institution isn’t willing to pay the fee and the author doesn’t have their own grant, the author will pay the fee out of their own pocket.
After reading another guest post on this blog about the misrepresentation of science by a non-scientist blogger, I couldn’t help but think about the blatant miscommunication and systemic problems within the academic system and beyond.
Why is communicating with the public a necessity? Let’s think about the anti-vaccine movement, or the perceived dangers of genetically modified food. How big is the disconnect between scientists and the public at-large on these issues, you may ask? (Spoiler alert: very big). Here, for example, are the discrepancies amongst scientists and the public in a PEW research study.
Perhaps blogs maintained by scientists themselves would be a great way to present research-backed findings to the public at-large. But professors are evaluated by their research (i.e., publications), teaching, and service; where does science communication such as blogging fit in? Blogging is either viewed as service, which is typically the smallest consideration for promotion; or it is just ignored; or, worst of all, it is seen negatively - as a waste of time. Publishing is important, but apparently the results should remain locked in an ivory tower, since blogs and informal communication streams are either not considered beneficial for a professor or viewed as a detriment.
And yet, there is anger, and frustration, when science finds evidence, but the public refuses to accept it. “They just don’t get it!” is the outcry from the academe. Yes, but why don’t they? I was recently rereading The Great Gatsby, and the narrator expresses this sentiment, which I find analogous to the issue at hand:
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," [my father] told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.”
When criticizing the public for not understanding, remember they don’t have 10+ years of research-focused schooling expertise, or access to information that would help them understand the findings as well as you might.
I am not a scientific expert by any means, but it isn’t hard for me to see some problems with the system, and the need for change. Instead of resisting change and a global society, everyone - including myself, academia, and publishers - should be asking: How can we make sure that science spreads through our diverse world, and that future progress isn’t hindered by misinformation and ignorance?