04 April 2014

Publishing may be a button, but publishing isn’t all we need

I’m hearing a lot of people say, “Publishing is a button” as a simple argument against scientific publishers and, to a lesser extent, journals: some scientists argue that both are completely unnecessary and have outlived their usefulness. This is a paraphrase of Clay Shirky; what he actually wrote was:

Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

Much like Stuart Brand’s quote “Information wants to be free” is often thrown out without acknowledging that the next line is “Information also wants to be expensive,” the Shirky sound bite overlooks something in his following paragraphs (my emphasis).

The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.

For scientific publishing, there are are least three things that are not just “buttons.” They need to be done by humans.

Quality control. Shirky alluded to this in his paragraph above. For academics, the major aspect of quality control means peer review. Some argue that pre-publication peer review doesn’t improve papers, but I think that’s a rare opinion. Most researchers who’ve been to this rodeo a few times will admit, however grudgingly, that reviewers have improved papers. For various reasons, I am not a fan of only post-publication review doing the job; more on this in an article that I will have out in Neuron in a couple of weeks. (Update, 21 April 2014: That article is here.)

Archiving. This is one of my biggest concerns with the “just stick it all on the web” approach, as I’ve mentioned before. I find so much link rot in my own blog. We need institutions that will outlast individual researchers, and currently, journals do that. Anyone who wants to get rid of scientific journals needs to pay attention to what institutions will take their place in curation and archiving. Björn Brembs has identified university libraries as a possible alternative for archiving, but we are a long way from that point yet.

Publicity and public relations. Some might argue that this wouldn’t be necessary in an ideal world. But even in this age of “help yourself to information” via search engines, lots of folks recognize that you can benefit a lot by thinking and working on “search engine optimization” (SEO). Putting something on the web does not guarantee people can find it. Publicizing research findings can be valuable. Some new research might have health or policy implications. Some we want to publicize because it’s cool, and it can help increase public understanding of science. And then there are the more limited but pragmatic considerations of individual scientists who want to enhance their reputation.

5 April 2014: In thinking about this a little more, I think Shirky’s idea might have been better expressed as, “Distribution is a button.” Printing things on paper and physically hauling it around the country, that’s largely been supplanted. But when you say “publishing” to most people, they are thinking about the things that Shirky still says are necessary: editors, designers, etc.

Related posts

Self archiving science is not the solution
Taxonomists as science survivalists
Scientific publishing and tree-shaped frosted sugar cookies

External links

How We Will Read: Clay Shirky
Publishing is a button: what Clay Shirky didn’t say 


Joe Kraus said...

Please don't shirk your responsibility to spell his last name correctly as Shirky, not Shirkey.

Zen Faulkes said...

Thank you for demonstrating one of the main points of the post. :) Fixed now.