03 August, 2009

The Culture of the Internet is Permeating Science (TRANSLATION)

[Recently, Spektrum der Wissenschaft published an article (Die Internet-Kultur sickert in die Wissenschaft ein) citing Dr. Bora Zivkovic of PLoS and A Blog Around the Clock. I found the article by Lars Fischer, of Fisch-Blog, to be quite interesting, so with permission I have translated the article and am posting it here. UPDATE: Lars Fischer has posted the original English-language transcripts of the interview with Dr. Zivkovic.]

The Culture of the Internet is Permeating Science
by Lars Fischer
translated by Toaster Sunshine

Open Access is changing scientific communication through both online periodicals such as the successful PLoS ONE or the increasing diversity of classical publishers’ online offerings.

“Open Access”, says Bora Zivkovic, “is just a stage of the process through which scientific communication will change as a whole.” He should know, because as Community Manager for PLoS ONE, currently the most successful Open Access journal, he is directly involved in this change. PLoS, founded in 2001 as the Public Library of Science, is financed by money from an endowment and authors’ dues, and makes all articles it publishes available on the Internet for free.

While the copyright of published works in Germany is still debated philosophically, international publishers are preparing themselves for the time after their abolishment. “The next step is that the journals abandon printing their articles on paper,” said Zivkovic. As a result they would be compelled to conform to economic reality: “Because the biggest costs in publication houses have nothing to do with their content. The preparation for printing, the printing itself, the paper, the ink, the truck and driver, the distribution system, all these are enormous costs.”

Pioneering in the Industry

That’s why even scientific publishers are working diligently to cooperate with the new digital world. Elsevier, with headquarters in Amsterdam, is currently developing a far-reaching, paper-free publication model. The “Article of the Future”, as the project is called, is strongly organized around the technical opportunities and demands of the Internet: individual article sections are laid out next to each other in the same page view, with valuable video and audio data embedded and all bound up in links. Naturally, readers’ comments also receive their own section.

Other industry leaders, such as the Nature Publishing Group in Britain, are going even farther. Admittedly, their journals continue to be available on paper. However, Nature has also already established a broad spectrum of online communities and services tailored to scientists, which is ground-breaking in the publication industry.

All of this does not signal the end of published articles. “The printing process simply shifts itself from producers to consumers”, says Zivkovic. This is a pattern seen across many industries: “It is like a supermarket, where one places what they want into their cart and take it to the cash register. For the past 50 years we’ve had someone putting the products onto the shelves for us.”

“A doctor in Chad cannot afford to purchase research”

Zivkovic is convinced that current developments in Open Access will eventually prevail in scientific publishing. “If everything online is available, then it is only natural that everything will somehow also be free. A doctor in Chad who wants to learn more about the symptoms of his patients and potential therapies cannot afford to pay $60 per article when he finally find what he was looking for. The pressure of consumers on journals to open their content for free access will grow strongly.”

As demand increases, publishers will have to greatly alter their business models. Through digitization, printing and distribution costs, which make up the lion’s share of the journals’ prices, fall sharply. Accordingly, remaining costs must be covered by other sources of income. “Open Access journals have diverse opportunities to cover their costs and simultaneously utilize others.” Currently the most widely known opportunity is that the authors themselves pay for the publication of their work, which constitutes only a small portion of the hosting costs under PLoS.

When applicable by individual circumstances, PLoS also waives author’s fees to reduce the hurdles faced by less cash-flush researchers and institutions. However, this raises the possibility that, barring conflicts of interest, editors and reviewers will perceive articles for which no fees were paid as being of poorer quality. To protect against this, Zivkovic is strenuous on the rule: “As to what was paid for, only the accountant knows.”

In any case, Open Access has established itself in the publication scene. For example, the Open Access model is apparent when scientific articles are published traditionally and later made freely accessible on the homepage of the journal. In the meantime this “Green Path” has also received official sanction: the NIH now stipulates that all research works produced from NIH funding must be made openly available within 12 months of publication. Despite this regulation, “golden” Open Access has also grown: approximately 4000 journal titles are now freely available online, the trend is increasing and demand is also growing. This is certainly due to practical reasons: “The culture of the Internet is permeating science”, says Zivkovic. Many also push for the free posting of their research on the Internet as a political and ideological action. It also applies, that: “They who pay for something on the Internet expect that it is absolutely fantastic, absolutely necessary, and absolutely inimitable.”

Publication determines who may ultimately consume data

In the long term the practical reasons for Open Access easily outweigh any costs. Many fields of research are already relying upon widespread sharing of digital data. “Publishing makes examples of those, the physical chemists or bioinfomaticists who are unfortunate that their search mechanisms and data crawlers cannot fully utilize the data on the Internet. In bioinformatics this stymies the development of new medicines, when their search mechanisms cannot access the necessary databases and calculations of other researchers.”

The trend to Open Access will take on classical publishers themselves. The subscription costs of journals in particular have increased immensely in the last few years. “That has nothing more to do with supply and demand,” grouses Zivkovic, “it’s a pure rip-off.” In 2007, Norwegian scientific libraries and the German Max-Planck-Gesellschaft threatened to boycott certain journals for this very reason.

Naturally the problem with high subscription costs has yet to be resolved. Because of this “the libraries [are] important patrons of Open Access. Because of the enormously increased prices they are able to afford ever fewer journals, which further hampers the researchers and their institutions.” Open Access journals demonstrate that it can be done differently, yet established print journals have not entirely committed. At least not all publishers raise their prices so casually: “On the other end of the scale are journals such as Nature, which are not nearly so expensive and are consequently prepared for the new, digital world.”

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