February 21, 2018

Are funders going to become publishers?

I recently wrote a blog with the admittedly cheeky title “I’ve Seen the Future of STM Publishing.” One interesting trend I pointed out was the blurring of lines between funders and journals.

This can prompt some panic on the journal publishing side, especially for society journals. Funders have tons of money. Society journals generally don’t. We seem to have survived Open Access (now generally recognized as a Good Thing).

Now we have to worry about funders putting us out of business?

I tried to strike a reassuring note:

I don’t believe funders really want to be publishers. They just want to get the results of the research they funded out there fast—all the results. And publishers, frankly, don’t really relish all the mechanics of publishing; that’s not what they’re about. So one aspect of this next generation of STM publishing, I submit, will be a more productive partnership between funders and journals to optimize the process.

I promised to write a subsequent blog about this, focusing on Gates Open Research. Here goes.

Researchers working in a lab with a tablet computer collecting information to publish.

“Immediate and Transparent Publishing”? Yipes!

Gates Open Research—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of biomedical research—is a really interesting development in a number of ways. Its goal is to get the results of the research it funds published quickly. Its website begins with the big, bold statement “Immediate and Transparent Publishing.”

Built on F1000’s Open Research Central, which also powers other similar platforms like Wellcome Open Research, Gates Open Research was launched in November, 2017. It provides a model of radically open, radically transparent, radically comprehensive, and radically rapid publication of research that in many ways shows where STM publishing is headed.

Gates Open Research provides a model of radically open, radically transparent, radically comprehensive, and radically rapid publication of research.

Pretending that this isn’t threatening to journal publishers would be disingenuous. For example:

  • The submission process is super-simple.
  • The average time from submission of an article to publication is seven days.
  • The source data and other resources like software are published along with the article.
  • All articles are Open Access under a CC BY license with no embargo period.
  • Authors pick who the peer reviewers are, the reviewers are identified, and their reports are published and responded to by the authors, all transparently, after initial publication.
  • Authors are encouraged to revise, and all versions of the article are citable, as are the data and other resources, all of which have DOIs.
  • Article processing charges (APCs) are far less than those for most journals: $150 for a short article (fewer than 1,000 words), $500 for a medium one (1,000–2,500 words), and $1,000 for over 2,500 words.
  • The APCs are paid by the Gates Foundation, not the authors, out of a central fund, not out of the grant money.

If you’re an author (okay, a Gates-funded author), what’s not to like?

If you’re a journal publisher, how the heck can you compete with that?

Calm down, journal publishers, this isn’t going to put you out of business.

Well, not so fast. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Publishing in prestigious journals is incredibly important, career-wise, to most researchers. Lots of authors are not comfortable with transparent Open Peer Review. Some researchers are reluctant to make all their data and software openly available because they are doing more research based on that data and those resources, and they plan to publish more articles, of which this one may only be the first.

But all those things are requirements of Gates Open Research. No exceptions.

The main missing piece: validation, the process of selection and editing that formal journals provide.

And here’s the main missing piece, it appears to me: validation. That’s the process of selection and editing that formal journals provide. When you focus on that, Gates Open Research starts to look more like a preprint server than a publisher, but with a couple of nice but not mandatory improvements: in addition to an initial “suitable for publication” review, the aspect of post-initial-publication dialog and the opportunity for the authors to keep refining the papers in light of that dialog, along with the associated labelling of an article as being “approved,” “approved with reservations,” or “not approved” by each reviewer (articles are not indexed in PubMed etc. unless they get sufficient approval). But that’s still short of the rigorous selection and editing done by formal journal publishers.

I am quite sure the Gates Foundation has no intention of putting journal publishers out of business. As big as they are, they fund a tiny portion of the world’s STM research, and not every project they fund will opt for Gates Open Research. They are the opposite of predatory. Being a responsible citizen of the ecosystem is in their DNA.

Nevertheless, pay attention, journal publishers.

I would suggest that their most significant impact will be to model how to do this better.

A lot of what they’re doing is exactly what researchers complain that the current journal publishing ecosystem doesn’t do, or doesn’t do well enough. Article submission and peer review systems are too complicated. It takes too long to get their research published. If they don’t pay APCs, their articles are behind paywalls. Etc. etc.

Even more to the point: researchers need to see the work of other researchers—easily, completely, and in a timely fashion. Even results that aren’t novel. Even negative results. Scientific research is inherently collaborative. Research builds on other research. Not to mention the reproducibility crisis: it’s estimated that perhaps only a third of published research is reproducible. To use an expression of my dad’s, is this any way to run a railroad?

Researchers need to see the work of other researchers—easily, completely, and in a timely fashion.

I’ve been in this industry too long to think the transition to a model more like that of Gates Open Research is going to happen any time soon. But I’ve also been around long enough to be convinced that it is more than likely to happen. It’s often observed that change happens slower than we think it will, but it turns out to be more significant than we expect. This is one of those times.

In the end, I think this is going to have a very positive effect on the evolution of the scholarly publishing ecosystem. Publishers should not panic; panic is not helpful. Instead, they should be looking at how this works, why this works, and why it’s good. The biggest danger to publishers is not paying attention.

I’m a both/and kind of person. Look what happened with Open Access. At least for now, we have a reasonably stable ecosystem where Open Access co-exists with the subscription model. Publishing rapidly in OA venues is best for some authors; for others, the prestige of highly selective journals is most important. There are significant differences between disciplines, not to mention the huge difference between STM and HSS (humanities and social science) fields.

I think the ecosystem will be a diverse one for a long time to come. But I think models like that provided by Gates Open Research and others will become a significant part of it.

Interested in learning more? Get in touch.

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