Executive Roundtable: The Boundaries are Getting Blurred

(L-R) T. Scott Plutchak, University of Alabama; Paul Courant, University of Michigan; H. Frederick Dylla, American Institute of Physics

The Friday plenary session opened with an executive roundtable discussion.  The panel consisted of 2 people in charge of large organizations who spent many years in research and who represent one audience that librarians want to serve.  They reported on a Scholarly Publishing Roundtable, which met to discuss issues and find common ground, then issued a report,which is on the AAU website. The issues are complicated and need to be balanced. Access only is not worth very much.

Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:

PC: The conclusions of the Scholarly Publishing Roundtable will be useful to define policies around public availability to publicly funded work. There is a remarkable heterogeneity in the ways things come to be published, and we must recognize that or we will be in serious trouble.

FD: For 3-1/2 centuries, publishers and librarians worked together. In the last 10 years, they had a fractious debate. The Roundtable changed the tone of the debate on public access. The President’s Science Office released some overriding principles to be followed and requested input on publishing practices.

SP: The “version of record” issue is a concern. The author’s final manuscript may be useful for immediate needs, but may not suffice as time goes on and revisions are made.

PC: That issue is complicated now as we produce everything electronically. You can lose the version of record easily in an unstable world. In the humanities, there is no version of record because of the continuing integration of multimedia, updates, etc. Versions of articles never become stable. What is the library’s role in this environment? The library and publisher begin to look very similar. Do we want to preserve the entire record? Do we want just a sample of it?

SP: This is particularly important in the healthcare field because lawyers often want a particular edition for a legal case. Traditional publishing in physics and similar disciplines is stable. Why?

FD: It goes back to the mimeograph machine where early versions were sent around asking for colleges. Now we fax documents to others. The physics community is well knit and has a half century of experience with collaboration. Some papers have hundreds of authors, so peer review is done internally.

PC: Economics is like physics and has always had a similar preprint culture of circulating papers before they are reviewed. We should not believe that a model that works in one world will work in all worlds.

SP: Science and scholarship is becoming more and more siloed and more interdisciplinary.

PC: The silo to the next piece of work is extremely important, but it may be more useful when it jumps over into another discipline.

FD: PLoS ONE is an interesting example. By forming an interdisciplinary and wide open journal, it has become the largest journal in the world. Many of us just use Google and go right to the abstract, without needing the indexing and other things on top of the article. We as publishers must be working on accurate discovery tools to help users locate articles.

SP: PLoS ONE is the first real game changer in publishing because it has shifted the process of peer review. One wonders what will happen to the rest of the journal space.

PC: I expect vertical alliances of journals. BEPress has set up various categories of journals, but articles are only reviewed once and then the journal where the article will be published is selected.

FD: This is just another corner of the publsihing ecosystem. The diversity of publishing is one thing I admire.

SP: Findability is the thing that worries me most about PLoS ONE. There is so much of interest that is being published that the challenge is not to separate the interesting from the uninteresting but to find the really important things among all the interesting ones.

FD: Our most important customers are the authors and readers. Everybody else serves them.

SP: The use of social networking may help researchers broaden their circle of colleagues beyond what they are aware of.

FD: Collexis, now part of Elsevier, set up something similar for biomedical researchers. We have UniPHY for physics. It is not too successful yet, but it is a good start.

SP: We are at least a generation or two removed from a true digital culture that parallels today’s print culture. The technical challenges are very solvable, but the economic and legal issues are much more difficult.

PC: The technology is actually quite good; we have become very good at transmitting large data files. But doing so requires payments and a set of arrangements different from anything we have seen.

FD: Costs and benefits must be a very important part of the equation. Someone must pay for the infrastructure.

SP: You both seem very optimistic about where we are going. Is that accurate? Where are the bright spots?

FD: I think the diverse group at the Roundtable showed the way for us to work through these problems. We all agreed on a set of principles for scholarly publishing.

PC: It’s now very inexpensive to copy and distribute work. That’s very good because new things that were formerly unimaginible are possible.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor


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