Angry white grad student on the keyboard – the Monday edition

August 24, 2015

Academic publishers behave more like libraries (hosting knowledge, curating collections).
All the _actual work_ (intellectual/experimental, writing, proofreading, peer review, typesetting) is done on a voluntary basis by mostly tax-funded academics. Therefore publishers should

0. die in a fire if unwilling to change, become tax-funded public institutions otherwise
1. provide free universal access to all publications.
2. OR, but it’s a mutually exclusive scenario, publishers start _paying their suppliers_, like everyone else.

There, I said it.

You know why this doesn’t happen? Because academia is an ego- and jealousy-driven enterprise, and branding one’s work under prestigious logos is the only tangible* metric of success most academics can aspire to. We are nothing but neurotic shaved monkeys, deal with it.

edit: I’d like to deconstruct what I wrote above: is it any true? and if that’s the case, does it necessarily have to be so? I.e. can this be turned into a positive statement; what drives academia (I’m referring to its research aspect ony; let’s leave education aside fttb) and why? To drive the human spirit forward by expanding knowledge and insight into the workings of the tangible (or intangible? here’s looking at you, theoreticians) world. To form the people who do so into heralds of positive change.

What do paywalled journals have to do with this? Why do we accept being reduced to currency, by an unfair economic lock-in mechanism? (This is what makes us neurotic, I think …)

* “impact factors” are b.s. numbers invented by pointy-haired management to rank clouds and solar flares by prettiness. Research is “invaluable” in the sense that 0. money goes in 1. nothing comes out, i.e. any given publication has measure zero in terms of immediate usefulness. A single paper is NOT worth 25$ of taxes or of someone’s attention, but it’s only worth in the context of all others (at best**) and all human knowledge in an extended sense.

What’s the origin, the source of “prestigiousness” for a journal? It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in which one’s work gains value purely by proximity to other “prestigious things”, think of it as a halo.
Sure, publishers contend that the curation process is expensive, but I’m pretty confident they have huge operation margins. Need to see the numbers though.
edit: the citation graph is what counts, in a very literal sense. One way to make sense of this growing amount of literature is to keep track of the “hubs”, i.e. the highly connected-to nodes: the “most influential” works are recognized by this. Under “fairness” assumptions which might not always hold; i.e. excluding or including a citation has many psychological hooks that I don’t dare to fully expand on here.. but the most obvious nonlinearity in the citation graph is the author being aware of (or not) of a certain work.

Truth be said, an increasing number of for-profit publishers are graciously giving an “open access” option to authors. At a charge, of course. Between 1K and 1.5K€ per article. Do you recognize this pattern? We’re getting s+++++d big time and have to say thank you as well !

(**) OTOH, there is such a thing as a b.s. publication, with 0 value, period. The price tag of any given paper only explains this vast, semi-invisible, mass of b.s. clogging hard-drives everywhere.

So let’s stop burying our research behind paywalls, break the addiction chain, do some actual good and open-source everything.

Instead, we’re stuck in a pusher-junkie situation, in which the substance is peer recognition, “visibility”. Immeasurable at best. Don’t you hate this state of things? Well, I do.

If you’re wondering what’s the cost of storage and infrastructure, Google rates are close to 2 dollar CENTS per GB per month. A color pdf with plenty of data inside is say 0.5 MB.
Say we define a “relevance lifetime” of a publication, let’s say 10 years (wild guess; it can be 1 month for biology, 50 years for civil engineering).
The hosting cost of a single pdf under these assumptions becomes 0.001171875 USD, ONE TENTH OF A CENT.
So I’d dare say those publication prices are more to justify Springer’s golden armchairs and infant’s blood fountains than actual data hosting.

OTOH, you can never be sure about the future relevance of an article. A “relevance lifetime” could be a loose assumption, and we should never disregard or delete a paper just because of its age. However, it becomes increasingly “better known” (on average), so any market value we attach to it should decrease.

Coordinating peer review has a price, too.I.e. calling those _volunteers_ and making them work faster. Automated reminders. The end.

I’ve completely avoided the problem of interpretation and information context so far. Value is subjective, but we have to deal with very objective monetary cost.
To a non-specialist, a Nature paper is worth exactly 0, apart from the pretty-picture “ooh!” value.
To a specialist instead, what lies inside is not pure information, because of the interpretative “line noise” introduced by natural language.
Raw numerical data too has a context-dependent value; let that sink in. No two persons share the same “universe of discourse”, the “set of all possible messages” introduced by C. Shannon. So how do we quantify the value of this? By the average number of “a-ha” moments over all readership?

But I’m digressing. Academic publishers are a legalised scam, and we should stop foraging them.


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