Drinking coffee in Italy is a quite different experience from drinking coffee in many UK coffee shops. In Italy, first you go into a bar — ”bar” in Italian doesn’t really have a direct translation into English, as it’s not the same thing as British pub, although they do have large and impressive counters — the bar itself. The person behind the bar is called a barista, which is Italian for “barman”. The barman is normally casually dressed. Assuming you want a coffee rather than food, you ask for a coffee in Italian which is, of course, the local language. The barman will turn around, fiddle with the coffee machine for a moment or two, give you a coffee and then take the 1 euro or so that is the normal charge. Most people drink this at the bar, without sitting down.

In the UK, you enter the coffee shop experience; the shops are often quite large, and involve sofas. The shop assistant is not a shop assistant but a “barista” which is not English. Baristas are, of course, trained and have the stars on their name badge to show it. You will ask for what you want, which you will describe also not in English, such as a “skinny, grande latte” which is Italian for, well, actually very little. The barista will fiddle with their machines for several minutes — thump, thump, thump to clean the old grounds, tsch, tsch, tsch to create the new, clunk, clunk clunk — pssssss, ahhhh. The coffee will then be served, often with a sprinkle of chocolate patterned with a pleasing corporate logo. You will give them the 3 pounds which is the normal charge. They will stamp your loyalty card.

The coffee will fail notably to taste any better than in Italy.

The reason for all of this fuss is called market segmentation: in the UK, coffee is a luxury experience; in Italy, it is a drink. You need all of this additional fuss to validate the price that you are paying; otherwise, you would feel like you were being ripped off. The irony, of course, is that the fuss does cost to provide, so then the price goes up even more. In the UK, I rarely drink coffee, which is a pity as a coffee (or espresso as we like to call it here) is quite nice in the morning.

My experience with academic authoring and publishing is rather like this. The process is surrounded by an enormous amount of mystique and hard work which adds relatively little to the process, but whose purpose is to convince the author that it is all really important, and well worth the cost (either 1000 pounds or copyright assignment which ever is the case), and time.

So, which parts of the publishing process do not actually make the coffee taste any better. To think about this, we need to think about the point of publishing in the first place: what are we trying to achieve? The process runs something like this: I, the scientist, do some work, which generates some knowledge about something; I, the author, then turn this into a form suitable for communication; others, co-authors and peer-reviewers, help to check that this has been achieved; finally, it is published or made available to the world. Other scientists then read this and the world becomes a better place. The last part is, of course, an aspiration and not always a reality.

This process is actually very simple. In fact, it is so simple that I achieve most parts of it with standard technology such as the WordPress installation producing this page. Peer-review can be easily layered on top of this as we have with KnowledgeBlog (http://www.knowledgeblog.org/). I am still in two minds about whether I value peer-review. It can be valuable scientifically, but in many cases it boils down to comments about how the reviewer would have written the paper; like most scientists, I am careful about my work, and get others to check much of it before I publish. And even when it does add value, it can slow down publication enormously, sometimes to the extent that publishers appear to wish to finesse the issue (http://svpow.com/2012/10/03/dear-royal-society-please-stop-lying-to-us-about-publication-times/).

Now, Chris Surridge recently characterised open access as “discovering what [we] can do without” (http://www.nature.com/spoton/2012/10/the-futures-bright-the-futures-orange-2/). I take a rather different view of things; I see this as an opportunity to actively rid ourselves of some baggage. What things do I actively not want from the publishers, though, rather like the bumping and banging in a coffee shop.

So, here is my list. I am sure that most academics out there could easily come up with their own list.

PDF
Year ago, I used to prefer paper over screen. Slowly and painfully I changed. I have now reached the same position with PDFs. Millions and millions of people use the various PDF viewers every year, to view millions of documents. But billions use the web. The difference shows.
English Correction
A quick look at this blog will show that my English is not perfect and I make typos. But my English is understandable. It’s enough.
Grammar Fascism
No, experiments are not performed. Sentences are not improved by use of the passive voice. For that matter data is not plural. These things are personal decisions. Get over it.
Dialect Correction
I wrote code to convert between British, Canadian and American English. Why did I do this?
Bibliography Styles
“Endnote offers more than 5,000 bibliography styles“. This is good. How?
Forced Structure
But you have to have a material and methods, because everybody really needs to know where you buy your computers and how much RAM it has.
Issues
Even the Royal Society is going continuous, so surely this is the way forward.
Complex Submission Workflow
Obviously, this increases quality, particularly if is different from everyone elses.
Submission Templates
Badly written LaTeX, or a dodge Word template. Totally different from everyone elses. With minor quirks. Oh, and instructions not to write any new commands in your LaTeX. What about Sweave? Pretty much, no you can’t have that.
Colour Image Charges
Colour is not all I want, I want movies (http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/2189)
Type Setting
Given that I have just spent three weeks writing a paper and checking that I have got it all right, why have someone type it all out again, and then ask me to check that they have done it right? Especially when they often haven’t.
DOIs
I’ve argued about these before (http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/1849), and no doubt will do again.
Impact Factors
Statistically illiterate (http://occamstypewriter.org/scurry/2012/08/13/sick-of-impact-factors/). Irritating.

Now, of course, we cannot lay the blame for all of these at the door of the publishers. Passive tense, for example, is a pretention that gets enforced at all most all levels of science. And there are also failings which are a nasty combination of all of these; the decision of an individual scientist to save results in cognito for a bigger paper comes from a nasty combination of Impact Factor and its uses, page limited publishing and the complexity of the submission workflow.

The move toward open access, though, is a backdrop. The publishing world has changed for me substantially, and I now have a strong base line. arXiv (http://arxiv.org/) does nearly everything that I want; it is easy, straight-forward and rapid. Were it not for my first pet hate (PDFs) then arXiv would be everything I need (I know arXiv doesn’t take PDFs but it does expect papers to be, well, paper shaped, so PDFs is how you see them). Publishing in this way, using my own CMS, is the most pleasurable of all; I have modified the environment to fit me and that makes things easy.

It is still not ideal; in my case, I maintain my own server which comes with a high (time) cost particularly when things go wrong (http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/1939), and it would be nice to be rid of this hassle. But I value the ability to add to the environment, with tools like Kcite (http://knowledgeblog.org/kcite-plugin).

I do not know what the future of academic publishing will be; what I do know, is that I want the process to be as easy as this, and I can see no reason why this should not be achievable. A one euro coffee bar with no fuss near my office would be nice as well.

Updates

I have made some spelling/typo corrections.

Addendum

I forgot to add another of my pet hates. As a reviewer, I absolutely loath getting manuscripts with double spacing and the figures at the end. Or, worse, in a different file. Why? This just makes it hard to read. It is painful for the authors (unless they are using LaTeX, when it’s one line). I doubt that it even helps the publishers these days. And I don’t care even if it does.

Bibliography

9 Comments

  1. Christopher Pipe says:

    As librarian-turned-freelance editor, earning some of my living from the unnecessary stuff you describe, I do agree with you, mostly. But I would want it acknowledged (a) that some academics find it difficult to write plain English, and if they wish their insights to be intelligible to the wider world (i.e. beyond the four people who know what they’re on about) some editorial intervention is a good idea; and (b) that a book (or journal) consisting of contributions from multiple authors needs an independent indexer to make its contents accessible to users.

  2. Phillip Lord says:

    As I say in my post, it is what I don’t want. My English isn’t perfect, but it is good enough, and I do actually understand the content of my papers. A copy editor will have probably have better English, but worse understanding of the content. My experience is that this equation subtracts value. Of course, for some authors, I agree, if their English is poor, they may want an editor. That’s fine. They can buy one; we do this for grants, why not for papers? Indexing, I am less convinced with. Books are, like journal issues, outdated. If you publish to the web, the majority of people will come in from search
    engine anyway.

  3. Duncan Hull says:

    Hi Phil

    Agreed on most of the above, especially the “additional fuss to validate the price that you are paying”.

    I’d pay 1 euro to have you run your blog posts through a spell checker before you post them. Mistique?

    Yours

    Spelling fascist

  4. Phillip Lord says:

    Ah, but you still understood what I meant. Normally, I don’t use spell-checking, because of all the non dictionary words I use. Having said that, I am grateful for the pointer, have made that (and another) correction. And I don’t think you are trying to get revenge for my past damage to your dissertation drafts.

  5. Duncan Hull says:

    A lifetime spent correcting typos in your blog posts is unlikely to fully repay the debt I owe you for mentoring (and editing) my MSc. Cheers bud!

    “is the convince the author that it is all really important”?

    speling and gramer fascist

  6. Simon Woodman says:

    Interesting article with some good points. However, “Where it not for my first pet hate (PDFs)”

    Another spelling fascist! :-(

  7. David Bovill says:

    Great article Simon! It’s been a while since I did any active scientific research (25 years or so), and as I’m just coming back to look at the field it truly amazes me how stagnant it is. After leaving medical research in the late 80′s I plunged into interactive publishing, working on collaborative medical texts at Charing Cross Hospital in London (and later Times Mirror publishers).

    I feel it is close to negligent that scientific funders, and societies have not moved further and faster to insist on open standards and rational evidence based processes for scientific publishing. It is plain unscientific. I’m going to have a good read around your blog, and http://knowledgeblog.org/ – and would very much like to find out who is active in this area for a new project / social enterprise I’m starting – http://www.scimatch.org/.

  8. An Exercise in Irrelevance » Blog Archive » Is Peer Review the Future? says:

    [...] So, why did I decline? Well, nice and simple; the page charges are just too high. There is no real justification for this as it can be done much cheaper (http://rossmounce.co.uk/2012/09/04/the-gold-oa-plot-v0-2/) — £200 or so seems reasonable; more over, I think it is bad for science because it is one of the factors that cause authors to think very carefully, and often save up work for “a bigger publication”. This can delay publication for years after the work has happened. Scientists have to think carefully about their research, and their work; thinking about whether to publish now or later is one piece of baggage that we could do without (http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/2248). [...]

  9. NIF Blog » Blog Archive » The Tyranny of Formatting says:

    [...] are probably great ways to do it, but I haven’t found them.  Additional formatting is truly “an exercise in irrelevance”, to quote Philip Lord’s excellent [...]

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