November 29, 2014

Neo-proprietarians + Conceptual Obfuscation = To What End?

It's been an interesting/bizarre month with respect to the open source/open access ethos [see disclaimer in 1]. The first part of the month saw two events. One was the posthumous birthday of Aaron Schwartz, and the other was a social media kerfuffle that represents part of a more general conservative backlash to net neutrality [2]. More recently, an article in Nature [3] argued that increases in the number of published papers in recent years (partially enabled by open-access publishers), has diluted the quality-control process enforced through peer-review.

What do these three events have in common? They all involve brushes with neo-proprietarianism, or the advocacy of intellectual property (IP) rights through a simple assumption: private ownership/management of IP is always somehow morally superior to open access. This might range from overzealous prosecutors and politicians to earnest, well-meaning scientists. The result is oddly-placed criticism of ideas that are potentially more beneficial to society than to private owners or firms. At times, people with no direct stake in the IP rights defend the claims of rights holders, which seems odd except in the light of neo-propietarianism (or defending the mere idea of ownership rather than its drawbacks and consequences).

In the case of both Aaron Schwartz and the aforementioned Nature article, the issue at hand is open access to scientific articles. The Nature article is well-meaning and raises some good points about how scientists might be compensated for work such as peer review. However, the tone and overall argument is reminiscent of another critique of open access publishing published last year in Science. Furthermore, there are some issues with making a link between publication quantity and the overall quality of the scientific literature. This is particularly true when the argument is made in a Nature article, lest it be interpreted as a conflict of interest [3].

Whether this is simply the act of conflating "the best of the best" with a restrictive paid-access model of publishing or an implicit argument for the infallibility of peer-review elitism is unclear. However, blog posts and data analyses by two biologists (one being Michael Eisen) and a bioinformatician [4, 5, 6] provide a very different (and more nuanced) view of the open-access journal phenomenon. This includes a rebuttal of the argument that the explosion of open-access journals is bad for the quality of the scientific literature and a burden on peer reviewers.

Sometimes quality control is a good thing. This paper was accepted by a so-called "predatory publisher" (maybe you stop bugging me for solicitations to your journal, maybe I won't embarrass you) . In discussions that revolve around publishing "quality" and "prestige", it is common to lump predatory publishers in with all other open-access publishers. Do you need an elite publishing model to prevent things like this from happening? (Answer: a rhetorical "no"). COURTESY: David Mazieres, Eddie Kohler, and Peter Vamplew.

For more reflection on the life of Aaron Schwartz, see this event hosted by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) called "Hacking for a Better World". And for some less ideonational views on net neutrality, see the two readings on the subject in [7]. Should November be known henceforth as "Open Information Month". In light of this year's events, perhaps.

[1] For purposes of this post, no finer distinctions will be made between true (e.g. the technical definition of) "open access" and Net Neutrality. Particularly as defined by the current debate, Net Neutrality is not equivalent to "open access".

However, for some recent thinking in this area, please see: Godwin, M.   How Wikipedia Zero will serve and promote network neutrality. Mike Godwin's LinkedIn blog, December 1 (2014).

[2] Pendleton, A. and Lannon, B.   One group dominates the second round of net neutrality comments. Sunlight Foundation, December 16 (2014).

[3] Arns, M.   Open accss is tiring out peer reviewers. Nature, 515, 467 (2014).

[4] Taylor, M.   Open-access megajournals reduce the peer-review burden. Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week blog, November 27 (2014).

[5] Eisen, M.   Contrary to what you read in Nature, Open Access has not caused the growth in science publishing. It is NOT Junk blog, November 27 (2014).

[6] Saunders, N.   Growth in free and closed scientific publications 2000-2013. Neil Saunders' Rstudio Notebook, November 28 (2014).

[7] Madrigal, A.C. and LaFrance, A.   Net Neutrality: A Guide to (and History of) a Contested Idea. The Atlantic, April 25 (2014) AND Bergstein, B.   Q&A: Lawrence Lessig. MIT Technology Review, October 27 (2014).

1 comment:

  1. Note my posted comment on :
    "The journal Nature leads in undercutting an accountable peer review system: "All submitted manuscripts are read by the editorial staff. To save time for authors and peer-reviewers, only those papers that seem most likely to meet our editorial criteria are sent for formal review. Those papers judged by the editors to be of insufficient general interest or otherwise inappropriate are rejected promptly without external review (although these decisions may be based on informal advice from specialists in the field)." "