09 February 2012

When scientists’ and publishers’ motivations align

Continuing with the theme of the similarity between game publishing and academic publishing, I learned this morning that a game publisher had crowdfunded over $400,000 in less than 24 hours. As I look now, it’s passed half a million bucks. With 33 days to go.

As someone who worked his butt off for a month to hit a grand through crowdfunding, I am in awe.

This analysis is good. (Here’s another.) It takes apart the question if creatives need middlemen like publishers any more. But this bit made me stop and think about scientific publishing:

Are you trying to get famous or rich?
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then it’s my opinion that you’ll still need a publisher. Why? Because your motivations are clearly aligned.

This is one reason why I don’t know if the calls to boycott Elsevier (say) can be sustained. There are a lot of scientists who are trying to get famous. (Probably not so many trying to get rich.)

For example, consider the discussions about the perceived need to publish in certain journals (here and here). I want to excerpt Björn Brembs’s description of his situation:

If you don't get any CNS papers in this field, you face only few job options, none of which mean that you’ll be able to spend much time on doing the research as you’re used to: 1) a teaching position at a small liberal arts college (and good luck with that with most of your time spent on research, but not getting a CNS) 2) salesman for the pharma industry 3) pipetteer for hire 4) flipping burgers. Which simply means that if you can't fathom doing anything else but science, you better get published in CNS.

Just take my example, which, from my experience and some statistics, is quite representative: In the last 6/7 years I have applied to about 120 tenure-track positions world-wide (i.e., North America, Japan, Australia, Europe), most applications went out before 2008, everything from small liberal arts to research one - basically I applied to anything that had ‘neuro’ somewhere in the description. Until then I had 1 Science paper, and 2-3 papers in the 7-10 IF range, approx. an average of about 1.2-1.4 papers per year, productivity wise. In total, I received less than 10 interview invitations and with very few exceptions, the other invited candidates had also all published in CNS (Cell, Nature, or Science - ZF). Informally, I was told that some positions I wasn’t invited for interview, this happened because I had to few hi-rank papers. With 60-600 applicants per tenure-track position, virtually everybody simply makes a cut at 1 CNS paper or so and then looks at the remaining candidates for a fit.

For many scientists, their goals remain aligned with the goals of academic publishers. Clearly some of that desire for “fame” is not actually a desire to be in the public eye, but scientific fame enough to yield job security. How do we break this? Attitudes of hiring committees would have to change, dramatically and explicitly. Even then, there might be enough scientists who want fame or wealth to keep the for profit academic publishers in the game for a while yet.

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