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November 8th, 2012

Why academic publishing is like a coffee shop: An enormous mystique adds relatively little


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Blog Admin

November 8th, 2012

Why academic publishing is like a coffee shop: An enormous mystique adds relatively little


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Prefer a short, sharp burst of espresso to a heavy, flavoured mocha-chip frappucino? Phillip Lord explains why he wants academic publishing to give up the extra fuss and to become more like his strong, jolting shot of morning espresso.

Drinking coffee in Italy is a quite different experience from drinking coffee in many UK coffee shops. In Italy, first you go into a bar — the Italian ‘bar’ is not the same thing as British pub. Assuming you want a coffee rather than food, you ask for a coffee in Italian. The barman will turn around, fiddle with the coffee machine for a moment or two, give you a coffee and then take 1 euro. Most people drink this at the bar, without sitting down.

In the UK, you enter the coffee shop; the shops are often quite large, and involve sofas. Baristas are, of course, trained and have the stars on their name badge to show it. You will ask for what you want such as a ‘skinny, grande latte’ which is Italian for, well, actually very little. The barista will fiddle with their machines for several minutes — thump, thump, thump to clean the old grounds, tsch, tsch, tsch to create the new, clunk, clunk clunk — pssssss, ahhhh. The coffee will then be served, often with a sprinkle of chocolate patterned with a pleasing corporate logo. You will give them the £3. They will stamp your loyalty card. The coffee will fail notably to taste any better than in Italy.

The reason for all of this fuss is called market segmentation: in the UK, coffee is a luxury experience. In Italy it is a drink. You need all of this additional fuss to validate the price that you are paying; otherwise, you would feel like you were being ripped off. The irony is that the fuss does cost to provide so the price goes up even more.

My experience with academic authoring and publishing is rather like this. The process is surrounded by an enormous amount of mystique and hard work which adds relatively little to the process, but the purpose is to convince the author that it is all really important, and well worth the cost (either £1000 or copyright assignment, whichever is the case), and time.

So, which parts of the publishing process do not actually make the coffee taste any better? To think about this, we need to think about the point of publishing in the first place: what are we trying to achieve? The process runs something like this: I, the scientist, do some work, which generates some knowledge about something.  I, the author, then turn this into a form suitable for communication and others, co-authors and peer reviewers, help to check that this has been achieved. Finally it is published or made available to the world. Other scientists then read this and the world becomes a better place. The last part is, of course, an aspiration and not always a reality.

This process is actually very simple. In fact, it is so simple that I achieve most parts of it with standard technology such as the WordPress installation that produces this page. Peer-review can be easily layered on top of this as we have with KnowledgeBlog. I am still in two minds about whether I value peer-review. It can be valuable scientifically, but in many cases it boils down to comments about how the reviewer would have written the paper. Like most scientists I am careful about my work and get others to check much of it before I publish. And even when it does add value, it can slow down publication enormously, sometimes to the extent that publishers appear to wish to finesse the issue.

Now, Chris Surridge recently characterised open access publishing as “discovering what [we] can do without”. I take a rather different view of things; I see this as an opportunity to actively rid ourselves of some baggage. What things do I actively not want from the publishers? Rather like the bumping and banging in a coffee shop.

So, here is my list. I am sure that most academics out there could easily come up with their own list.

Years ago, I used to prefer paper over screen. Slowly and painfully I changed. I have now reached the same position with PDFs. Millions and millions of people use the various PDF viewers every year, to view millions of documents. But billions use the web. The difference shows.

English Correction
A quick look at this blog will show that my English is not perfect and I make typos. But my English is understandable. It’s enough.

Grammar Fascism
No, experiments are not performed. Sentences are not improved by use of the passive voice. For that matter data is not plural. These things are personal decisions. Get over it.

Dialect Correction
I wrote code to convert between British, Canadian and American English. Why did I do this?

Bibliography Styles
“Endnote offers more than 5,000 bibliography styles“. This is good. How?

Forced Structure
But you have to have a material and methods, because everybody really needs to know where you buy your computers and how much RAM it has.

Even the Royal Society is going continuous, so surely this is the way forward.

Complex Submission Workflow
Obviously, this increases quality, particularly if is different from everyone elses.

Submission Templates
Badly written LaTeX, or a dodgy Word template and totally different from everyone else’s. Oh, and instructions not to write any new commands in your LaTeX. What about Sweave? Pretty much, no you can’t have that.

Colour Image Charges
Colour is not all I want, I want movies.

Type Setting
Given that I have just spent three weeks writing a paper and checking that I have got it all right, why have someone type it all out again, and then ask me to check that they have done it right? Especially when they often haven’t.

I’ve argued about these before, and no doubt will do again.

Impact Factors
Statistically illiterate. Irritating.

Now, of course, we cannot lay the blame for all of these at the door of the publishers. Passive tense, for example, is a pretention that gets enforced at almost all levels of science. And there are also failings which are a nasty combination of all of these; the decision of an individual scientist to save results incognito for a bigger paper comes from a nasty combination of Impact Factor and its uses, page limited publishing and the complexity of the submission workflow.

The move toward open access, though, is a backdrop. The publishing world has changed for me substantially, and I now have a strong base line. arXiv does nearly everything that I want; it is easy, straight-forward and rapid. Were it not for my first pet hate (PDFs) then arXiv would be everything I need (I know arXiv doesn’t take PDFs but it does expect papers to be, well, paper shaped, so PDFs is how you see them). Publishing in this way, using my own CMS, is the most pleasurable of all; I have modified the environment to fit me and that makes things easy.

It is still not ideal; in my case, I maintain my own server which comes with a high (time) cost particularly when things go wrong, and it would be nice to be rid of this hassle. But I value the ability to add to the environment, with tools like Kcite.

I do not know what the future of academic publishing will be. What I do know is that I want the process to be as easy as this and I can see no reason why this should not be achievable. A one euro coffee bar with no fuss near my office would be nice as well.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

This article was originally published on Phil’s own blog, An Exercise in Irrelevance, and is republished with permission.

About the author:
Dr Phil Lord is a Lecturer in computer science at Newcastle University.



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Posted In: Academic publishing | Impact