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Ah, the slow moving waters of academic publishing! Take your eye away from them for a day or a week, let alone a month, and everything is irretrievably changed. Last month it was the sale of Thomson Reuters IP and Science that attracted the headlines: this month we see the waves crashing on the shores of academic institutional and Funder-based publishing, as well as a really serious attempt to supplant Web of Science as the metrics standard of good research and critically influential science. And, as always, all unrelated events are really closely connected.
So let’s start with the wonderful world of citation indexes. Inspired by Vannever Bush (who wasn’t in that generation?), the 30 year old Eugene Garfield laid out his ideas on creating a science citation index and a journal impact factor in 1955. His Institute Of Science Information was bought by Thomson Reuters in 1992, and I am pleased to record that in my daily note to the then EPS clients (we were all testing the concept “internet” at the time), I wrote “It is widely thought that in a networked environment ISI will be a vital information resource”! Full marks then for prescience! As Web of Science, the ISI branded service, became the dominant technique for distinguishing good science, and funding good science, so Thomson Reuters found they had a cash cow of impressive proportions on their hands.
But this history is only significant in light of the time scale. While there have been updates and improvements, we are using a 60 year old algorithm despite knowing that its imperfections become more obvious year by year, mostly because the whole marketplace uses it and it was very inconvenient for anyone to stop. Although altmetrics of all sorts have long made citation indexes look odd, no move to rebase them or separate them from a journal-centric view took place. Yet that may be exactly what is happening now. The inclusion of RCR (Relative Citation Ratio) in the National Instiutes of Health iCite suite fits the requirement that change is effected by a major Funder/official body and can then percolate downwards. RCR (I do hope they call it iCite – RCR means the responsible research code of practice to many US researchers) now needs widespread public-facing adoption and use, so its implementation across the face of Digital Science is good news. Having once thought that Digital Science in its Nature days should acquire Web of Science and recreate it, it is now becoming clear that this is happening without such an investment , and companies like figshare, Uber Research and ReadCube will be in the front line exploiting this.
And then, at a recent meeting someone said that there would be 48 new university presses created this year for Open Access publishing for both articles and monographs. I cannot verify the number – more than Team GB’s initial expectation of Olympic Medals! – but the emerging trend is obvious. Look only at the resplendent UCL Press, decked out in Armadillo software producing some very impressive BOOCS (Books as Open Online Content). In September they launch the AHRC- British Library Academic Book of the Future BOOC, if that is not a contradiction. Free, research-orientated and designed to high standards.
Just up the road in London’s Knowledge Quarter is Wellcome, and it is interesting to see the first manifestation of the predictable (well, in this arrondissment anyway) move by funders into self-publishing. As author publication fees mount (one major Funder already spends over a billion dollars US on publishing) there has to be a cheaper way. And at the same time if you could actually improve the quality of scholarly communication by bringing together all of a grant holder’s research outputs in one place that would seem to make sense. It simplifies peer review, which fundamentally becomes a function of the funder’s project selection – saying in effect that if we thought it right to fund the work then we should publish the results. It does have some objective checks, presumably like Plos!, but the object is to very quickly publish what is available: Research articles, evidential data, case reports, protocols, and, interestingly, null and negative results. This latter is the stuff that never gets into journals, yet, as they say at Wellcome “Publishing null and negative results is good for both science and society. It means researchers don’t waste time on hypotheses that have already been proved wrong, and clinicians can make decisions with more evidence”. The platform Wellcome are using is effectively F100, and so is designed for speed of process – 100 days is Wellcomes aspiration – and for post-publication peer review, allowing full critical attention to be paid after materials are made available. And the emphasis on data very much reflects the F1000 dynamic, and the increasing demand for repeatability and reproducibility in research results.
So, what a month for demonstrating trends – towards more refined metrics in research impact, towards the emergence of universities and research funders as publishers, and towards another successful development from the Vitek Tracz stable, and a further justification of the Digital Science positioning at Macmillan. In an age of powerful users focussed on productivity and reputation management, these developments reflect that power shift, with implications for the commercial sector and the content-centric world of books and journals.