Perhaps scientific publishing can change

reading by luis de bethencourt
How do you read papers? 2010 will be different:
[Via Gobbledygook]

In November 2008 I wrote a blog post called How do you read papers? The blog post was actually about different strategies to find interesting papers, e.g. browsing journal tables of content (TOC), different search strategies, filtering by papers others read, or filtering by experts (e.g. Faculty of 1000). A paper by Duncan Hull et al. published around that time in PLoS Computational Biology (Defrosting the Digital Library: Bibliographic Tools for the Next Generation Web) also talked about finding strategies and the best tools for this.

In this blog post I want to talk about the actual reading of scientific papers that you found with one of the strategies mentioned above. There are some interesting recent developments, and I think we will see some significant changes in how we read papers in 2010.

Printed journal
Holding the printed journal in your hands is probably still the most satisfying reading experience because of professional typesetting and color reproduction. But unless you have a personal journal subscription, it is not convenient as you would have to go to the library to read the paper. Plus, many journals no longer produce a printed version, or the library has only an electronic subscription.

This used to be the most common way to read papers 20 years ago. But the quality of photocopies is usually worse than a printout of an electronic version, and photocopies are far more inconvenient to obtain. Reading photocopied papers will only be necessary for the small number of journals that produce no electronic version, or for older papers.1

PDF printout
This is the way most people read scientific papers today, unless they just want to look up small parts of it. Quality color printers have become affordable, and the reading experience is similar to the printed journal with the added convenience of electronic distribution. Most people use PDF printouts for reading, and later discard the paper copy, sometimes even the same day. This is not only more expensive than reading on an electronic device, but also not very friendly to the environment.2


I was reading through this nice post about reading papers in different media when I ran across this:

Reading Web Pages
Most examples mentioned above try to reproduce the experience of reading something printed on paper on an electronic device. An alternative approach would move beyond the traditional format of a paper and rather takes advantage of the electronic medium. And it looks like the web technologies HTML5 and Flash are best suited for this. Cell Press was experimenting with this approach in 2009, and officially launched their Article of the Future with the first 2010 issue of Cell (all papers will be available without subscription for 60 days, you can provide feedback here). The basic idea of the Article of the Future is to break away from the concept of reading a paper from beginning to end, and to make navigation between the different parts of a paper much easier.

Whereas the Article of the Future tries to make navigation with a paper easier, the PLoS article-level metrics help with navigating to related content: citations, blog posts, reader comments, etc. The Notes feature lets registered users highlight text for specific comments – very much what you would do on a printed paper (but with the added benefit that everybody can see this note).

I’m most excited about projects that enhance the scientific paper instead of recreating an exact electronic version of the traditional paper. And HTML is a more promising format than PDF for these approaches. Michael Clarke (with whom I had the pleasure to do a session at SciFoo 2009) reminded us that Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW in 1991 to facilitate scientific communication (with HTML and navigation both within and between documents as central concepts), but papers and journals have changed surprisingly little in the last 18 years (Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?).

Cell is a pretty good journal to stay on top off but it used to be pretty hard to read for someone not at a university because of the cost. But now you can read a paper for free in the first 60 days. Not a bad idea.

And the new format is a nice start. I often read papers by the section, starting with the abstract, checking the conclusions, reading the introduction, following the results and then checking out the specific methods. The Article of the Future format allows me to easily do just that.

The article from Scholarly Kitchen about scientific publication has some really worthwhile observations about WHY articles are published. It indicates just how hard it might be to completely disrupt the publishing corporations.

I would suggest that much of the disruption has occurred at the enduser more so than the publisher. (And since I am mostly an enduser ant never a publisher, this is just my perspective. I am sire those who actually work in the industry will have their own perspectives.)

I think that Open Access has been very disruptive and has put publishers under varying degrees of pressure. Researchers want as many people to read their paper as possible in a reputable journal with as wide a reach as possible. Open Access permits this, particularly in journals produced by the various scientific organizations. And it really permits access from the readers, who can now read articles that were previously unavailable to anyone who was not working at a university or near a college library. In many cases, these papers are freely available to anyone within 6-12 months, if not immediately.

And in some cases, such as Circulation, these journals have high impact factors. These journals provide all 5 factors mentioned in the post but also provide articles for free to the enduser. I do not know all the economics behind this, but I would suspect that the combination of membership fees, along with built in subscribers, is involved.

Scientific publications have already been disrupted by the ability for many people, including non-scientists, to access information that had previously been hidden away. This is a big deal, if not the exact focus of the Scholarly Kitchen article.

For-profit journals have their own disruptive pressure that I continue to see played out.

Journals that are not the house organ for a scientific society, such as Nature or Cell, can not rely on society membership fees to help pay the way. Access to articles always cost money. They often require payment up front for articles that are years old. I believe that this restriction of access puts them under very disruptive pressure to change, especially those for-profit journals that may not have the impact factor of Nature or Cell.

They have to maintain their reputation by being the first or best in the field. Otherwise, the highly regarded society journals will overtake them. For them, impact factor is everything because they have no association to provide them ‘cover’. One way they have been able to do this is to limit the number of high quality papers they publish. With only a limited number of slots in such high quality journals, they keep their impact factors high.

But this becomes harder in a Web 2.0 world where journals are no longer really as limited in the number of worthwhile articles printed a month. Many of the journals published by societies are not only of very high quality, but they come with high impact factors and would be very good to have on any CV – Circulation, published by the AHA, has the highest impact factor for its field. They almost all publish 2-4 times as many articles as they did a decade ago.

Exclusivity is not as big a factor as before. Publishing in some of these ‘house’ journals is easier than it used to be and the impact factors are still quite high. The advantages of many of the for-profit journals are greatly weakened.

And, frankly, these for-profit journals know this which is why I think they have actually sought more disruption than more traditional journals, such as Circulation. They can not afford to lose their position in the field when it comes to validation, filtration and designation. They have to innovate to survive.

So both Nature and Cell have actually done much more to connect with Web 2.0 technologies than almost all others. Nature has blogs, podcasts, etc. all geared to find a sweet spot for being the first to create the disruptive technology. Cell has this new approach of displaying articles while making them available free for 60 days.

If they are the first to be disruptive in a truly positive way, they will have an advantage. If they wait for others, they will lose. That is why I continue to see journals such as Nature and Cell try some very innovative approaches. Not all will succeed but if these types of journals hope to succeed, they must be the first to adopt them, if not be the ones who create them.

Counterintuitively, I expect the for-profit publishers to be the ones that create the real disruptions in the scientific publishing area. They have the most to lose but the most to gain by changing the paradigm.

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3 thoughts on “Perhaps scientific publishing can change

  1. Richard, I think the idea is not that new papers in Cell will be free for the first 60 days, but that for 60 days after Cell’s big announcement of their new “article of the future”, you can read things in that format for free. After that 60 days, it all goes back behind the paywall as will all future articles. I had a very different reaction to their design than you had. I can’t read a paper without constantly referring to the data in the figures. I want to be able to immediately see if the conclusions they’re drawing are warranted by the results. Doing so in a new Cell article requires going back and forth between different web pages, which is a very inconvenient design.

    I think you’re off a bit on the economics as well. From the scientific societies I know, journals are a major source of revenue, usually they (along with meetings) pay for most of the society’s activities throughout the year. They aren’t a place where membership dues are spent, they’re a place where (often declining) membership dues are supplemented. Society journals are just as for-profit as Nature or Cell, but instead of paying shareholders, the profits are reinvested in the society’s activities. But because they’re run by scientists (or in the case of CSHL Press, by a research institution), they’re more in tune with the desires of the community and not beholden to shareholders and the bottom line. This gives them more freedom to experiment with things like releasing older content for free because it’s good for science and so far doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on subscriptions. New archiving initiatives by funding agencies are also making policies like this necessary.

    1. David,

      You are probably right. I got too excited about being able to read Cell. And I probably should not have put Cell and Nature in the same category as many of the for-profit. They have low enough personal subscriptions to make a subscription model work. It is the for-profits that are based more on a library for their subscriptins than personal that may be under pressure by the society journals.

      It is a fun time with lots of possibilities (fun with a int of snark ;-)

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