Nature vs. everyone else?

By Razib Khan | July 2, 2008 8:59 pm

Nature came out with a piece today, PLoS stays afloat with bulk publishing: Science-publishing firm struggles to make ends meet with open-access model. The title basically says it all. There have already been some negatives responses, see Mike Dunford, Alex Holcombe, Living the Scientific Life, Greg Laden, Jonathan Eisen, Drug Monkey and Frontal Blogotomy. I won’t really get into the details here. I think the article makes some good factual points, but they’re stitched together in a manner to depict PLoS in a rather unfavorable light. The kicker of course is that Nature has some major conflicts of interest here.’
But at the end of the day: what’s good for science? It seems that the Open Access controversy is mostly focused around the life sciences. Is physics dead in the water because of arXiv? For many of the social sciences such as economics “working papers” are circulating for years and invariably sitting on someone’s servers as PDFs if not on the Social Science Research Network site. Perhaps in the life sciences because of the possibility of patents and the bioethical ramifications a “gated” model is more natural, but I’m skeptical. It isn’t as if someone with the inclination can’t just go down to the local college library and find what they need to engage in tje nefarious activities that publishing houses are claiming Open Access will enable. At the end of the day it isn’t about PLoS, just as file sharing wasn’t about Napster. It seems likely that we are in an age of creative destruction in regards to content distribution models. You can deny it, but I doubt you can stop it. Evolve or go extinct, those are the two alternatives in capitalism….
(Keep track of responses via technorati)

  • agnostic

    This is another example of the modern obsession with regulation and distribution of stuff, rather than on the production of stuff.
    I hear way more about the pros and cons of Open Access than on constructive ways to improve peer review — my simple idea is to offload most of it onto smart grad students, who have the time to check the references and logic carefully. That’s the only way that academic urban legends can be stopped.
    Or how you have to go on a scavenger hunt now to find all the info you want from a single article. Yeah, “well, you should be prepared to put in some effort” — but they know not everyone is going to, since not everyone is an angel. They hide some graph or table of regression coefficients deep in the online supp info that shows their results are barely meaningful.
    Free or protected garbage is still garbage.

  • razib

    i thought that that was part of the idea behind SSRN and arXiv. you increase the number of eyeballs which prune crap from papers of interest.

  • KG

    Sadly, the Nature article’s position is pretty representative of today’s over-competitive, prestige-minded culture in academic life science research. There are already too many PhDs and too few professorships. Force of ideas and quality of science is no longer used to judge scientists. Instead, the prestige in references lists has taken their place. While journal reputations are still good indicators quality (and applicability) of science, in this age of “sweat shop” research, connections and celebrity, concentrated at rich academic institutions, can increasingly get papers published in the “right” journals. Therefore, it is these non-science strengths that propel scientists’ careers; scientists who are under tremendous competitive pressure as their labor is commoditized.
    In order to uphold their competitive edge, prestige-focused, closed-access journals such as Nature need to continue to prosper. Plos One and open access threatens to “flatten” life science research by rendering the hierarchy of journals, and even labs, pointless. When everyone can publish, and everyone can read, it’s the quality of science not citation that will drive the success of life scientists. Open access threatens to ruin the “good thing” many career researchers fought ruthlessly to get. My PhD from Stanford and post-doc with Prof Hot Shot who got me one Nature and two Cell papers need to still mean something after all.
    Oh, and it disrupts Nature’s business model.

  • Stew

    @KG: I don’t understand – why do you assume that Nature doesn’t want traditional publishing models disrupted? You think if PLoS actually cracked high impact OA publishing there’s be a Nature News article complaining about it on principle? 😉
    (disclaimer: I work for Nature. Speaking personally, though)

  • BGC

    I think the open-access/ pay-to-publish model (like PLoS) is very interesting; with obvious advantages (access) and disadvantages (paying).
    At present, however, it is not clear whether open access is economically viable. It seems to require subsidy.
    Of course there have been many subsidized journals (most ‘annals’/ ‘archives’, ‘proceedings’ and journals of such and such ‘society’ have had – or still get – subsidized. And plenty of journals have had pay to publish models (the most pretigious is PNAS).
    Journals like Nature and Science (or the major medical journals like Lancet and NEJM) that employ big teams of professional editors and journalists, also get a lot of funding from advertisments – which most mainstream journals cannot access.
    But I can’t see anything wrong with leaving the market to decide the mix of publishing methods; some for profit (and therefore influenced by the need for profit), some subsidized (and therefore influenced by the agenda of whoever provides the subsidy).
    Surely having a variety of models is better – and is less likely to enforce biases on the publication process?
    I dislike the often moralizing/ accusatory tone of the open access movement, however. I would rather keep moralizing out of it, and discuss what is best and sustainable for science – in the long term.
    Declaration of interest: I am employed as an editor by Elsevier.

  • Clark

    While the commercial interests in biology might explain some of it I don’t think it can explain enough since many life science papers don’t have obvious commercial applications.
    To be honest I also don’t quite see the connection. So you hold off on a paper until you get a patent. Why would that mean the paper after being held off goes to a journal rather than an open server? Yes it would mean that papers would have the immediacy that the preprint services in say physics have. But I guess I’m missing something.
    Sounds to me more like institutional inertia.

  • kagakuronin

    I also wonder why this is mostly a problem in the life sciences and not in physics. But I do think that there is a cultural difference between life scientists and physicists about their attitudes towards publications; life scientists tend to care a lot more about in which journals their papers are published. And I think that’s why PLoS did not become something like arXiv. PLoS journals are Open Access, but they are still playing a role similar to traditional journals. (PLoS One may be slightly different, though.) The way I see, arXiv is more revolutionary.

  • gc

    Peer review actually isn’t what I’d consider *most* pressing. Two or three reviewers can only catch so much.
    Instead, the most important single thing journal editors can do is to start requiring their papers to be in reproducible research format:
    Basically, this is a single file with the code and the text in the same place. You mix (say) R and LaTeX markup together, and then compile the whole thing at once. If external data is necessary, you bundle it as a .tar archive.
    For a number of fields (genomics, stats, CS, etc.) this is basically the entire research. Open source is even more important than open access . If you can see their code — if it’s mandatory to have the code included in the body of the MS to publish — then you can reproduce their research and build on it.
    Even for fields with lots of primary data rather than secondary analysis (e.g. wet lab bio), including raw digital images and video in a standardized format is important. You always have tons more relevant gels than are in the paper, and you include these in the .tar archive with a few linked in the actual pdf version.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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