Saturday, July 4, 2009

Books, Journals, Conferences, Blogs

I was reading the overview on Open Access Overview by Peter Suber, and I ran into the following paragraph:

Scholarly journals do not pay authors for their articles, and have not done so since the first journals were launched in London and Paris in 1665. Journals took off because they were more timely than books. For readers, journals were better than books for learning quickly about the recent work of others, and for authors they were better than books for sharing new work quickly with the wider world and, above all, for establishing priority over other scientists working on the same problem. They gave authors the benefit of a fast, public time-stamp on their work. Because authors were rewarded in these strong, intangible ways, they accepted the fact that journals couldn't afford to pay them. Over time, journal revenue grew but authors continued in the tradition of writing articles for impact, not for money.

It was amusing to see that there was this transition from books to journals, for pretty much the same reason that in computer science we have seen a transition from journals to conferences. I am wondering if the senior scholars of the day were commenting on this transition in the same way that Mike Trick commented on the similar tension between journal and conference publications:

if a subgroup chooses a method of evaluation antithetical to the mores of the rest of academe, don’t be surprised if the group gets little respect outside their narrow group

So may be a few years from now, we will see a similar problem as people will start leaving "traditional" peer-reviewing behind, opting for new modes of publication, such as self-publishing. Michael Nielsen has an excellent article on the disruption of scientific publishing. Micheal points to the high quality blog posts from high-quality researchers:

Look at Terry Tao’s wonderful series of posts explaining one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent mathematical history, the proof of the Poincare conjecture. Or Tim Gowers recent experiment in “massively collaborative mathematics”, using open source principles to successfully attack a significant mathematical problem. Or Richard Lipton’s excellent series of posts exploring his ideas for solving a major problem in computer science, namely, finding a fast algorithm for factoring large numbers.

So, does the future of publication rely on self-publishing? Daniel Lemire may be right saying:

To me, the single most important recent event in academic publishing has been the publication by Perelman of his solution to the Poincarré conjecture on arxiv. This is truly a historical event.

Will this change alter fundamentally the way academia works? I do not think so. It will simply mean that every scholar will be very careful about the quality of the work that is self-published. When everyone can speak, people will only listen to those that generate content of high quality, effectively ignoring those that publish for the sake of publishing.