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Public Work From the Start

I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the nature of academic publishing. Just today I had a manuscript accepted for publication in a special issue of a journal that I myself have no access to (!). I hate that ideas I may be working on only get airing either in conference presentations, or after going through the peer-review process, or by informally passing around a manuscript among friends. I hate that the readership of my work is severely constrained by the publishing model that predominates in 2009.

As I’m working on setting up a new source-control and backup system for my academic manuscripts, I’m wondering: why not to put it all in public (say github) repositories? It’s certainly much easier technically. And it can have other benefits if I want comments during the process.

Three obvious arguments against:

First, there’s a long history of researchers treating their work as proprietary. There are entirely rational reasons for this that have to do with the rewards structure of the academy. In short, you don’t get tenure without being able to brand your work, and there is a competition for new ideas, a concern about people borrowing or stealing those ideas, and so forth.

But, I’m not that concerned about this issue. If ideas are public from the start, the digital paper trail is there such that interested parties can fairly easily determine the provenance of ideas.

The second issue is potentially bigger: peer review. If all work is public from the start, then peer review in theory cannot be blind. But maybe this is all the more reason to push on this idea; blind peer review is both overrated, and a bit of a fiction anyway.

The third issue is related to both of the above: the “previously published” standard for publication. Publishers almost without exception demand you assign copyright of your work to them, and part of involves guarantees that it has never been previously published. What does it mean to publish version-controlled draft work on the web, or to blog pieces as you go?

Maybe I ought to just to go all public, and all open access. Hmm …

Ah, the above is obviously related to the much more catchy notion of the open scholar [via DigitalKoans]

2 Comments

  1. Chris Rusbridge says:

    I’ve been worrying a bit about aspects of this also. The first thing to remember is that there is a well developed repository movement; if you are careful about the rights you grant to publishers, and read the small print, you can deposit a version of your paper in your local repository for free access (sometimes after an embargo period). Then, on making the repository more useful, see the series of posts starting at http://digitalcuration.blogspot.com/2008/07/negative-click-positive-value-research.html, and ending with http://digitalcuration.blogspot.com/2008/08/comments-on-negative-click-research.html. On whether source code repositories could be useful for these purposes, http://digitalcuration.blogspot.com/2009/04/libraries-of-future-sourceforge-as.html reports some interesting discussions. But if you make progress on your “source control and backup system for manuscripts”, I’d love to hear…

  2. darcusb says:

    Thanks Chris. Good to see you trying to push repositories forward, as I really haven’t found that model very compelling.

    When I get around to it, for example, my publications will be hosted on my own site, as easily accessible XHTML (I did have code that integrated commenting on the articles via disqus, but had to pull it because of bugs in their software w/XHTML).

    On the SCM, I’m just using darcs, where I keep a sort of master repository on my main site, and then keep local copies wherever I work. The distributed nature of darcs means I have effectively full backups on every machine I am working on.

    I may open this up to web viewing later, but am not going to worry about it ATM.

    As you may guess from the above, I think SF is a horrible model for this. But then I don’t much like the idea of centralization to begin with. It seems preferable to be able to simply copy/fork a distributed repository to a central local if/when the need arises. Of course, for this to be valuable to people other than technically-savvy geeks, you’d have to put some work into a nice UI; maybe something along the lines of this.