Scientific publishing has some problems beyond business models

From an open letter in the Guardian:

 Early in their training, students learn that the quest for truth needs to be balanced against the more immediate pressure to “publish or perish”….

…This publishing culture is toxic to science. Recent studies have shown how intense career pressures encourage life scientists to engage in a range of questionable practices to generate publications….

…At the same time, journals incentivise bad practice by favouring the publication of results that are considered to be positive, novel, neat and eye-catching. In many life sciences, negative results, complicated results, or attempts to replicate previous studies never make it into the scientific record. Instead they occupy a vast unpublished file drawer….

As academic librarians, our role is to be experts — not in any specific field — but in the phenomenon of academic publishing in general.   In our educational role with students, we ought to be helping students understand and think about these issues — to problematize and complexify the world of research publication.  Despite our patrons desire to have blacks and whites that let them complete their assignments with as little thinking as possible (yeah, I said it) —  it’s our professional duty to not only help them complete their assignments as conveniently as possible but also understand problems and current issues in academic publishing in general.

And to make the case to administrators and faculty that this our rightful role.  Not all faculty will welcome critique of the scholarly publishing enterprise that is essentially their livelihood either of course (go read that letter in the Guardian we began with, again).

This reminds me again of Karen Coyle’s excellent points about the phenomenon of “predatory publishers” — we over-simplify if we suggest that publications can easily be split into problem-free ‘good’ and untrustworthy ‘predatory’ problems.

We do disservice to our patrons to imply that as long as they steer clear of identified ‘bad’ publishers from some librarian-endorsed list, then of course anything that’s “peer reviewed” becomes absolutely trustworthy gospel through the magical transubstantiation of ‘peer review’.

And we do disservice to ourselves and our professional capacities to avoid critical engagement with our domain of expertise — academic publishing.  We are — or ought to be — academic professionals, not just clerks and secretaries for the university community or salespeople for scholarly publishers.    Could it help restore professional credibility and respect to librarians if we participated at the front of research into research, of the history and critical analysis of the enterprise of scholarly publishing?

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