Can We Stop Talking about the “System” of Scholarly Communications, Please?

By Joseph Esposito, from The Scholarly Kitchen

You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We’d all love to see the plan
                               –The Beatles

In a recent piece in the Guardian, Dorothy Bishop proposes a new system for scientific communications. The piece is thoughtful and well-written; not a trace of cynicism. A longer piece by Rebecca Kennison and Lisa Norberg also proposes a new system. You can find the white paper here. It also is very well-written and untouched by cynicism. You can feel the presence of superior intelligence in all of these pieces–that is not in question. Google “scholarly communications system” and you will retrieve over 5 million pages, most of them irrelevant, of course, and not all of them well-written. But that there is a “system” there can be no doubt. Once you have a system, of course, it can be improved. Let’s swap one Big Idea for another.

Now, you already know that the “however,” “but,” or “on the other hand” is coming. Exhibit A is an analogy: a walk down any street in Manhattan. I am sitting in my poorly planned, unsystematic suburban home as I write this, but this is almost a coherent algebraic formula in comparison to the spectacle of arriving at Grand Central Terminal and stepping onto the sidewalk. Who could have foreseen this? And even harder to contemplate: Who could have planned it? The grid of streets almost makes it feel systematic, until all the exceptions are brought to mind. The diversity, the vitality, the sheer creativity of a capital city: where is the system in this glorious mess of individual acts and improvisation?

I doubt that Exhibit B, the current practice of scholarly communications, is any different. It wasn’t a system that gave rise to the author-pays (aka Gold Open Access) service at Vitek Tracz’s BioMed Central or the hoovering up of metadata that forms the core of Symplectic. It’s not a system that creates a group of librarians working together in what ultimately became ICOLC. And it’s not a system that has enabled the largest commercial publishers to coopt both Gold OA and library consortia. Things develop a wee bit at at time–first some pressure here, then some pressure there. At some point we then look back and say, “We knew where this was headed all along.” This is the same argument that is made for Intelligent Design.

The problem with cooking up a system is that it trades the creative contributions of thousands of individuals for the more refined and articulate plan of a small number of elite advocates. If the advocates were not as accomplished as they are, it would be easy to dismiss any proposed system out of hand. But intelligence is a great seductress; it slyly leads us to assume that being smart and being right are the same thing. Meanwhile, the evidence to the contrary is messy and contradictory. Although “everybody knows” there are too many journals, new journals appear every year. Although it is assumed that the university press sector is under strain and shrinking, at least two new such enterprises have come to my attention in the past several months. And for all the trumpeted reductions in library budgets, the publishers that sell materials to libraries are reporting modest growth. Now where could that have come from? The answer seems to be that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs don’t read the headlines.

What we need are not new systems but new services. Services are not top-down comprehensive solutions to all the problems (and some of the merits) of scholarly communications but activities that address specific needs. They usually are conceived by one person, rarely by a committee, and have as their virtue that they come into the world with blinders, never turning their head to the left or right. It is precisely because they do not try to do everything that they are successful. They can be disruptive and unpredictable (who knew that Google would change library discovery services forever?), disruptive and predictable (demand-driven acquisitions), and even something that eventually gets absorbed into the basic infrastructure of publishing and librarianship (Portico and LOCKSS).  What all of these things have in common is that they did not set out to change the entire world but to improve one piece of it.

I am itching for new top-down systems to be launched. Every such plan will leave things out, will open up windows where the opportunistic will jump through to their profit. All things grow from the bottom up. Plant a tree in the air and there will be a rush to fill wheelbarrows with dirt to anchor it to the ground. My bet is on the clever and perhaps shortsighted pusher of barrows. It’s a messy lot, running off in several directions and often at odds with itself. Welcome to the real world! Next stop: Bedford Square.