Do we need competition in academia?

In old-fashioned academia publishing there is a competitive factor omnipresent. The average science-conference has only 50 free-slots, while the number of submissions is 500. The consequence is a rejection-rate of 90%. The same is true for academic journals which are published only 4 times a year and on the other hand there are so much new authors who wants to get published. This mismatch is normally solved with a brutal peer-review process which postulates that some papers are not good enough. The concept of selecting only the top 5% of authors / papers is not totally new, also schools and universities are working with the same principle. So called SAT test are done in US-universities for example.

Why the rigorous quality control is done? Normally this question isn’t be asked, it is accepted as the rule of the game, that only the best of the best are welcomed. The real reason can be explained as a cost-problem. A university like harvard rejects most of the applications because the number of rooms on the harvard-campus is limited. The same is true for conferences and journals. They have limited slot numbers.

The answer to the problem is not to peer-review the papers, the answer is in lowering the costs of a journal. If a paper-based journal which have to be send via snail-mail to the libraries is replaced by a digital version, there is no longer a need for limiting the slots. It is possible to increase the acceptance rate to 100%, that means that every submission is printed in the journal.

The consequence is increasing the published paper. To explain the potential loss in quality, a sidestep to the Wikipedia system is necessary. Normally, Wikipedia works with displacement in mind. A better article about “pathplanning”-topic, replaces a worse one. The wikipedia authors defending their own version in so called edit wars. In academia the situation is different. There is no taxonomy which is limited to the article space, instead the informationflow is endless. Instead of replacing former written paper the edit-wars are grouped around attention. It is the same principle like at twitter and the rule is to increase the number of followers.

The number of potential followers is not limited by absolute numbers. Instead the limit is the number of people on the planet earth. If more people are online, more potential followers are possible. And that is the real game of how academia works. It is not a fight for a certain topic or theory, it is a war around the readership. It is true, that academic writers are involved in a competitive game, but the scarce resource is not a slot in a conference or the acceptance letter of journal, instead academia is in competition with other forms of content like weblogs, movies, youtube-clips and webforums. If a blog-post has a better audience than a pdf paper on arxiv, than academia has lost the war.

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Elsevier is under pressure

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/publishers-take-researchgate-court-alleging-massive-copyright-infringement

According to the latest news, the company Researchgate involved Elsevier into a lawsuit. The trigger was a copyright violation of Researchgate, which increases the pressure to Elsevier. So the RELX Group which is located in UK had no other option than to defend themself against the aggression. Researchgate has reached a monopol in the area of distributing academic paper over the internet and is listed according to Alexa.com on place #258 worldwide which is more than sciencedirect and springer.com combined. The danger is high, that Elsevier goes bankrupt if they not act.

The motivation behind the biskly behavior of Researchgate is simple: they want to exploit their monopole and crowd out smaller companies from the market. Additional to Elsevier also the American Chemical Society (ACS) is suffering.

OpenAccess works better as expected

It is relatively easy to come to the conclusion, that openscience and Wikipedia are both a failure. The reason is, that the absolute number of regularly editing authors is very small. Only 20k worldwide are editing in the English Wikipedia and only 300k authors are publishing more than 3 papers a year in academic journals. So the conclusion is, that science-related content production is done by a minority.

But, there are additional information which are not supporting the thesis that the knowledge is concentrated on a small group. For the publishing of papers in an academic journal it is known, that overall nearly 15M unique authors are out there and for wikipedia it is known, that the number of people who has done more than 10 edits over a longer period is 300k. So we have a core group and an extended group:

• Wikipedia: 20k core, 300k extended (1:15)

• academic publishing: 300k core, 15M extended (1:50)

The workforce in the academic journal publishing system is a bit difficult to grasp, so I want to focus primary on Wikipedia. On the first hand, the number of 20k Wikipedia editors is relatively small. On the other hand, this group is not the same over longer periods, instead the people who has edited in the last month actively are changing. The real number of wikipedia authors is with 300k higher. Not all of them has edited in the last month, but in the last 10 years. This number of 300k people worldwide are writing the English wikipedia, and the number is for en encyclopaedia big enough.

The same principle is right for the process of academic writing. It’s true, that only a small amount of authors publishes regularly every year, but a huge amount of people has written at least one paper over a longer time period. This extended number of authors is the real authorship.

Probably it is impossible to increase the core number of people who are writing content. Because the needed workforce inside wikipedia or inside academia is constant. In that sense that the number of articles per year which are added is constant. On the other hand it makes sense for fluctuating the people who are engaging actively. The ideal Web 2.0 portal consists of a big number of people with an account and a small changing group of them which are contributing in a specific month. According to my impression the number of 300k extended Wikipedia editors and the number of 15M extended academic authors can be improved. The best way to do that is some form of rotating the authorship. The author writes in month January an aticle and the next 11 month he isn’t writing. In that time the next author creates articles. So in so overall process a wide range of people are involved and the skill for creating science-related content is located in the crowd.

I think the future of OpenScience is not to increase the total amount of scientific publications which are published on an annual basis but to integrate more people in the overall process and make the transition between being an author and being only a reader easier. The open question for the scientific world is how the very productive authors can be limited and their workload be transferred to new authors with no experience in writing. One possibility would be, that every author will get a maximum number of articles he can publish and after the limit is reached, he must pause for 5 years. In that period there is a need for fresh authors because the yearly output of papers should remain the same.

JOBROTATION

The major impact of OpenScience is not the future science will be better or more efficient. Instead the aim is to weaken the academic system a bit and on the other side to strengthen the society. The yearly written paper will be the same and also the quality will not be improved dramatically, instead the same amount of work is spread out to more shoulders. In the best case to amateur scientists, to scientists from the wrong subject and even to people who are not capable of doing any research. The question is not: how to improve the science community, the question is more who we improve the world outside of academics. Knowledge itself is more than only the know how of how physics work or about how to program a computer, knowledge has the power to make people stronger. That form of openscience is dedicated to education. The aim is not to get new knowledge but it’s more a question of how to spread the existing wealth to the people. As a consequence the openscience agenda consists of two parts. At first, the entry barriers for amateur scientists have to be lowered, and on the other hand the institutional science has to weakened artificial.

The best way to do that is to consider science as a form of border which separates wisdom from stupidity and the aim is to open the border in both direction so that the information can flow easier. The today non-scientist can learn from academics, and the academics can unlearn their skills. The optimal state is some form of “in-between”. A good working model is job-rotation in an amusement park, where every employees can work on every station.

Get cited but how?

There are three possibilities out there to get cited as an amateur scientist:

1. edit an existing wikipedia article. This works, because wikipedia is heavily cited by academic papers.

2. co-authorship in a scientific weblog. This also generates a moderation process.

3. Be part of moderated scientific discussion like Scholarpedia.

In every cases, a pre-step for citation is the involvement in a moderation process. That is not in every case connected to paying money or to engagement in a university, but without the moderation process the citation probability decreases to zero. In academics the term peer-review is in usage to describe the quality control process. But the better term is moderation. Peer-review is only a specific form of a filter.

The filter itself increases the impact factor of a journal. It can be done inside a normal science journal like Nature, but a moderation process can also be took place in a co-authored blog. The amount of energy to establish a moderation is high. The citation probability in academic context depends of how intensive the moderation process works. For example: the peer-review process at Nature works with a lot of experts in the background. There is not only one admin who sorts out the spam, but there is complete group of people who are reading the paper in detail. That is the reason, why the impact factor of the nature journal is evaluated by the public as high.

So the question is, how we can reduce the costs while holding the moderation filter on a high level? Wikipedia has answered the question perfectly. They have round about 300k authors how are watching incoming edits and reject the spam. Normal universities has also answered the question, because the paper who are published there are also quality controlled by a professor. So Wikipedia or paper at university servers are a reliable source. Or to make it clear in detail: it is easier to determine the quality of a concrete paper because the impact factor for the journal per se is known. The most people have an impression, what they can expect from a paper which is published in the repository of the M.I.T. university.

The correct term outside of academia is “writing circle”. Most content management system like Drupal have plugins for such purposes. The idea is not only to publish a paper online, but to implement a workflow around the paper. Ironical, in such writing circle, the paper itself can be less important. What counts is the interaction and the comments. The nice part is, that the result of such a writing circle has a higher chance to be cited by the public instead of the original paper.

What Peerj have done, is to establish exactly such a writing group. The idea is, that the peers are revisiting the manuscripts each other without earning money.

BROAD READERSHIP

The common criteria for moderated discussions is, that a topic is relevant for a wide readership. Articles who are not conform with the peergroup are marked as wrong. The consequence is the the moderation process filters out all opinions which are not widely accepted and the next layer (the public) has the same criteria, in that sense, that all writing circles which are to uncommon were simply ignored. The consequence is, that the cascades will reinforce by themself, and at the end the mainstream is established. The system of many layers who are connected together works perfectly if the aim is to find the common information, but it fails if the aim is to find new ideas.

Perhaps, the well trusted academic journals and the search engines solves a problem which is not really a problem. If the criteria of the past are well suited, than the science community would work perfectly. But the reality is, that on one hand there are many quality control mechanism which prevents all kind of spam and nonsens and on the other hand, the scientific progress is missing. Perhaps, the quality mechanism itself is the problem. I want to give an example.

If a normal authors uploads a well formatted pdf file to his weblog, this pdf file will never be cited by any other paper. The first reason is, that it was not published in a journal and the second reason is, the google isn’t indexing pdf files which are hosted on weblogs. But perhaps inside the document is a wonderful new theory written and we will never know that. So the question is how to bypass the quality filter? How to establish a own judge outside of common criteria?

I want to give another example: Wikipedia. That website has the best quality control in the world. Nearly 300k people worldwide are monitoring constantly the website. It is hard to inject any false information in the system. On the other hand, wikipedia doesn’t know the truth. The problem is, that important topics from computerscience are not explained very well in wikipedia, instead less important articles from beauty and politics get a lot of attention. So Wikipedia isn’t representing the worlds knowledge, but it is representing the mainstream knowledge. The real information are out there, but Wikipedia has the wrong quality control system for finding them.

It may be a little conceited to claim that Wikipedia is wrong, because it is the result of 300k people. How can a single author knows more than the masses? Perhaps not wikipedia is wrong but the outsider. The truth is, that truth is changing. The topics which are discussed inside wikipedia are fluctuating and so it is possible that both sides have the truth. I would claim, that it’s normal in human history, that a single person have more knowledge than the whole group. That would explain why single inventors like James Watt have done remarkable things which was surprising for the mainstream. A society needs both, the mainstream and the counter-culture for destroying the mainstream.

What is wrong with social academics networks?

The occasional reader may think, “what is so difficult in understanding OpenAccess?”, but the problem is not the idea per se, it is more the realization. At first some facts: The old school publishing system has only around 50M paper total, most of them are hidden behind paywalls, and the quality of research is too low. So OpenAccess and similar aspirations were founded to overcome the problem. Some of the newly invented products are working very good, other not.

It is sad, but “academic social networks” are in the last category. In theory, Researchgate and Academia.edu are the best invention since sliced bread but in reality nobody is happy with them. Well established researcher on a subject with dozens of publications are complaining on reddit, that they get lots of spam mails from Researchgate from coauthors, who themself never have send out any of these e-mails. But the novice user to a social academic network is also unhappy with the service, because his uploaded content is not visible in Google Scholar. So at the end, nobody profits today from social networks.

But what is the problem? Technical the online-plattforms are well designed. They are tailored exactly to the purpose of reading and uploading scientific research. Even a bibliographic database runs in the background, and the categories and discussions groups were the scientists can debate over hot topics makes sense. Unfortunately the user makes mistakes …

To go more into the details it is important to compare social academics networks, with a very successful example of the web 2.0 which also has science-knowledge in mind: Wikipedia. This websites has only 20k regularly authors who are writing articles. The total number is compared to the members of Academia.edu which has 50M very small. But, Wikipedia is widely known and has a lot of unique content, and what is more important: Wikipedia is used also by non-academics.

So we have on one hand, the social academics networks, which are likes by nobody and which are for daily work useless because Google Scholar is by far the better search engine for academic content and on the other hand we have wikipedia, which is very successful with little invested manpower.

One possible explanation might be, that Wikipedia uses the wiki-syntax, while academic social networks are PDF file based. Another explanation might be, the the research-community works different from an encyclopaedia. Honestly, I’m not sure what the reason is.

OpenAccess advocates like Richard Price (CEO of Academia.edu) claims that it is only a question of time. In 5 years, Academia.edu will be the major platform for scientific exchange. But perhaps he is wrong, perhaps in 5 years, most of the remaining scientists have done a removal https://www.reddit.com/r/AskAcademia/comments/5rvo9a/should_we_all_delete_our_academiaedu_account_now/ But what could be the alternative for scholary communication? The alternative would be the old-fashion way which was used in the past (traditional book publisher and academic journals). The only transition which is working today is the change in direction of OpenAccess. Most of the universities are convinced that this is a good idea. Only a minority believes in paywalls. Academia.edu and Researchgate are going one step further. They not only claim, that papers should be free, they also say that traditional publishers are obsolete. And here is the controversy point. Apparently they are two positions available.

According to my knowledge, currently there is a pro OpenAccess but contra-academicsocial networks consensus between scientists. 100% of them agree, that publishing under openaccess is a good idea (mostly of them do exactly this), and 100% would also agree, that Researchgate is only a spam-centrifugal without practical benefit.

The reason number #1 why so many academics are using academic social networks is because they want to spread their papers as wide as they can. They see Researchgate not as an academic social networks, where they can interact with colleagues, but as a filehoster for increased visibility in Google scholar. The same paper which is hosted on Researchgate is also available on the homepage of their university, in the archive of another repository, at Academia.edu and so on. So the science-community is using the networks mostly as a backup tool like dropbox, but not with this purpose in mind what it was original created.

Instead of explaining how to overcomes todays problems, I want to give an outlook what will happen in future. If the trends are going further, the old publishing companies and universities will gain much attraction. Names like Elsevier, Harvard, Arxiv and M.I.T. are the bright stars in future publishing attempts and network building. With openscience has this nothing to do. It is the opposite. Future Academics will be more restricted than todays.

This brings us to the remaining question: how would openscience look like in future? Probably it has no future. Wikipedia will be extended a little bit with the possibility to publish research papers, but it’s more likely that openscience will not happen at all. That means, that the society remains divided: in 1 million researcher worldwide which are extremely well educated and working in paid jobs where they are writing papers to the current research questions. And on the other hand we will get 7 billion people without any academic background. Instead their daily activity is reduced to uploading videos to youtube and establishing livestreams in twitch.tv where they are sharing ingame-content with the world. This sad projection has the highest probability, because even today we have the same situation in the engagement in Wikipedia. 20k diligent wikipedia authors are creating the content for the whole world. So 99,9% of mankind never wrote any sentence in an online encyclopedia and likewise they will never publish any academic paper.

From this pessimistic standpoint, Academia.edu with his 50M users today is a bit oversized and even Researchgate with 10M users is to big. Worldwide there is only a need for not more than 1M scientists and 5 major academic book publishers. They are using classical peer-review which takes at least 2 years and they accept paper only if the APC charge was paid in advance. The sad news is, that with 1M academics plus 20k Wikipedians is is possible to deliver much more scientific content to the world, as they can ever read. I’m in doubt that with openscience and Academic social networks this situation can be improved.

The apprehension is, that Openscience and academic social networks are only a good wish. It is not a bottom up approach where million of people are interested in academics and want to upload something, but it is more an utopian project where the hope is, that the world can be transformed to something which is more educated. The reason why Academia.edu published no information about unique content which is uploaded there and which was written by amateur scientists is because these amateurs are not existing. If even Wikipedia is not capable to attract milion of authors worldwide for improving the website, it is impossible for Academia.edu and Co to motivate ordinary people for writing science-papers.

Best practice methods in scientific publishing

Most tutorials about scholarly communication are wrong, especially if they have Openaccess in mind. Instead the following tutorial describes the dos and don’t in academic writing from an idea to a final paper which is published in a journal.

At first it is important to know, that there is no difference between writing a phd thesis and publishing an article in a magazine. in both cases an advisor, teacher and friend is needed. While writing a phd thesis this role is normally done by the Doctoral advisor, sometimes called Phd Superviser. And if the aim is not to get a phd title at the university but space in a magazine like nature or science, than the counterpart is the publishing company.

Let us watch the process of writing a paper in detail. Normally it starts with a clean sheet. The potential phd candidate goes to his advisor and the potential author of a journal article would write a letter to Elsevier. In the first step, he has no final paper which he wants to publish, instead he wants to negotiate about the modalities of potential publishing. And here is the difference to most of the above mentioned wrong tutorials. They claim, that the first step is, that the author sends an unpublished manuscript to Elsevier. That is nonsense. If the author has a manuscript, he needs no longer a publishing company. He would put the paper out for his own. Academic publishing means instead that the manuscript has to be written first. And that is real reason why it takes so long.

Normally from the first contact with a journal until the paper is published on the website, it takes at least 2 years. In that period, the paper is written and in every step the stakeholders can bring in additional informations. So publishing a paper in a journal is comparable to writing a phd thesis.

Academic communication means not, to write a paper and print it out. It is more, that the advisor helps the author to write a paper. If the authors of a paper would know for them self how mathematics works, they would not need Elsevier. They would publish their ideas for their own. Classical publishing consists of a teaching relationship between the journal and the author. In that form, that Elsevier explains the novice what they have to write and the author follows that rules.

The role model is similar to a learner-teacher-relationship. Elsevier or every other academic journal is the master, which knows everything about a subject. The journal provides the outline, the knowhow and expert advices for a certain topic. On the other hand is the author. He writes the article after he has learned and understands the subject. He benefits from the longterm experience of the counterpart.

It is a little problematic of what the advocated of Openscience promotes. They claim, that a author can write a paper alone, and perhaps they claim that a student can graduate for themself. That is totally wrong. It is some kind of academic misconduct to ignore the advices of a supervisor in a journal.

ELSEVIER

In OpenAccess relatated blogs, Elsevier is often described as a publishing company who get the APC charge for putting a PDF file onto their webserver. That is not the task of Elsevier. Instead the company has much in common with a college. Here https://www.publishingcampus.elsevier.com/pages/26/Colleges/College-of-Career-Planning/Your-study/How-to-select-a-supervisor.html is explainess, that Elseiver consists of supervisors, comparable to Doctoral Advisors at university level. So Elsevier is a lot more than only a publishing company, it is more like a university where the authors can learn something about mathematics and medicine. The question is not: what can the author do for elsevier, it is the other way around. I do not understand who can somebody criticize Elsevier for that role, it is the same as if somebody would criticize Harvard because they are providing phd supervisors.

The process of creating a paper together with Elsevier can be described as a 2 year training process where the participant (which is called an independent author) is the person who profits from the knowhow from Elsevier. After the two year process, he not only get a printed version of his paper, but he also learns many new things from one of the most influential experts in that field. Attending to such a program is the logical consequence in an academic career which is after a phd thesis not over but will flow into the publication of papers in journals.

So it is totally wrong if the Openaccess advocates claims that this post-phd-education can be done in under 2 years, or at lower costs. That has nothing to do with professional publishing it is more a predatory publishing where the author of text will learn nothing and in the worst case he doesn’t even have a supervisor.

Crowd as a supervisor?

OpenAccess Gold advocates claim, that instead of using a traditional supervisor as person, it would be possible to utilize the crowd for supervising tasks. How can this be done in theory? The relationship between an author and research supervisor is, that the author has a lack of knowledge and the teacher knows everything. In the area of “Academic social networks” the part of a supervisor is done by:

• academic search engines

• access to previous published papers

• feedback on the own writings

Some people argue, that the overall supervising process can be done with automatic computerprograms. And a webportal which is based on a computerscript is all what a potential author need for learning the facts. The online portal provides access to full text papers, give hints which of them are useful and give access to people who are working on the same subject. New and interesting is, that this supervising process is no longer coordinated by academic publishers or universities, instead in a decentralized online social network with the authors profile in the centre. Talking to the supervisors is equal to login to the academic network and reading of the new comments.

The role of supervisor and student is no longer defined clearly but everybody is both. On one subject the user of the network has only a small amount of knowledge, so he is in the role of a student who needs advice. In another area he/she has a large amount of knowledge, so he can help other students and give feedbacks to their work. Like in traditional publishing process the aim is not only to publishing a paper, but to improve the learning experience of the participants. The difference is, that on academic social networks under openaccess the student learns both social roles: to take advice and to give advice. To express this a bit colloquial, some users are using Academia.edu only for the purpose for training them self as a supervisor. Their aim is not to publish anything, but they encourage others to do so. The social role of a supervisor is to guide the research process, give advice and feedback and motivate on a personal level. So it is ideal for teachers or people who want to act like teachers.

What someone can expect from a supervisor?

A supervisor in traditional education system has an important role. He stands between a novice who writes at first time in his life a phd thesis and the mainstream science which is full of experts and tradition. The task of a supervisor is two-folded. At first, he explain the new student how science work, and what the important questions are. On the other hand, the supervisor introduces the novice into the community. He promotes his papers, and brings him in contact with the right people.

In the traditional system a supervisor is a real person. Mostly a experienced expert on his field. This is problematic because knowledge which is located in persons is costly to reproduce. The better alternative is, to build software and online-portals with supervisory qualities in mind. Instead of asking with a real person, the search engine google scholar can be seen as a supervisor. Google scholar knows, what are the current research topics are and it also introduces new work into the community. The question if google scholar has the same qualities like a real supervisor is comparable to the comparison between a human librarian and a catalogue with flashcards. Some users say, that only a real librarian can answer complex questions, but other say that a well sorted catalogue is superior because the costs are lower.

My opinion is that a combination between a scholar search-engine and an academic social network is a good clone of a real academic supervisor. The combination is able to bring most student on a intermediate level of academic understanding and it is also able to introduce new papers into the community. The disadvantage is, that google scholar not really understands what in a paper is written so that it is not possible to use it for question answering purposes. If a AI software like IBM Watson would be feed with the 50M academic papers, the system would be a way better.

In a paper, “An experimental search strategy retrieves more precise results than PubMed and Google for questions about medical interventions” https://peerj.com/articles/913.pdf a short overview between Google Scholar, pubmed and a question answering system is given with the aim of building a better academic searchengine. From a technical point of view, these systems are possible ‚cause the ranking of Google Scholar today is not the optimal way for presenting results.