In the push-and-pull between open access (OA) publishing models and that of traditional scientific journals, OA should not strive to prove it is as good as the latter; it can be better, and social media tools can give it that competitive edge, say researchers and OA advocates Melissa Terras, Co-Director of the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities, and Curt Rice, Pro Rector for Research at Norway’s University of Tromsø. Through tweets and blog posts and rich, online debate, we can maximize the benefits of OA for researchers, the journals that publish their work, and for society at large.
“In competition, being as good as your opponent gets you nowhere. You have to be better.” Curt Rice sounds like a coach giving a pre-game pep talk to his team, but the Pro Rector for Research at the University of Tromsø (Norway) and Head of the Board for the national organization Current Research Information System in Norway, is talking about publishing science in open access. “Some still think that open access publications have problems of quality control,” as if the term “open” meant anyone can publish anything they like. “A lot of discussion has been to tell researchers that the quality control of open access is as good as in the traditional publication system.”
But this, says Rice, is missing the point. What OA advocates should be talking about is developing a system that takes the core goals of scientific publication – critique by expert colleagues and transmission of results to a variety of users – and does them better. How can open access outperform its tenacious, institutionalized competition, the traditional top-tier journals? Perhaps through its intimate relationship with social media. Blogging, tweeting, publicly discussing research can have benefits for scientists, journals, and even society, through the increased debate and transparency that it brings.
Tweet your research and it will be seen
This potential for Twitter and the blogosphere to strengthen open access, is what Digital Humanities researcher Melissa Terras hoped to show with an experiment she started in October 2011. Her project to promote her research articles via Twitter (@melissaterras) and blog posts made clear the concrete benefits for the scholar, specifically, of pairing open access and social media.
As a University College London researcher, a number of her publications could be found in the institution’s open access archive, Discovery. They were freely available to all, but, for the most part, they just sat there, getting one or two downloads apiece (even when they had been submitted months or even years before.) Terras decided to make all 26 of her academic articles available, and to promote each of them via Twitter and with a related blog post. Following each mini communications campaign, Terras saw the same phenomenon: an average of 70 downloads per paper, within 24 hours. “This might not be internet meme status,” she writes on her blog, “but that’s a huge leap in interest.” After the initial peak in downloads, interest usually fell away slowly, over an extended period, as her newly discovered articles continued to be mentioned on other blogs. Today, her articles are among the most viewed in the repository of any from her department.
“It's ok to put things in a repository but you are placing a tremendous strain on the user to actually do their homework if you don't promote it.”"
In other words, she says, you can’t expect potential users of research works to say, “‘Wait! Melissa Terras is at UCL! I wonder if they have an open access repository that she may have bothered to put that article into?’ Seriously, users won't think that way...You want to google an item, and see if it comes up. That's it.”
Reader-Author-Publisher interaction: Added value for OA journals
From the point of view of a healthy OA journal, Dr. Terras can also speak to the added value brought by social media. As General Editor of Digital Humanities Quarterly, an open access, online journal, she finds that, in addition to broadcasting the link to a new article, Twitter provides an excellent means for interacting with their readership. The journal (@DHQuarterly) has over 970 followers who provide feedback and ideas, respond to calls for reviewers, and even notify editorial staff if the journal’s server goes down. Expanding the online, often participatory offerings also makes for a more well rounded publication by offering different types of communication: debates, op-ed pieces and the like.
It is here, in the increased and open communication surrounding research, that Curt Rice (@curtrice), linguist by training, OA advocate, and blogger, sees a role for social media in the competitive advantage of open access. “Because there’s more discussion, more communication, more informal review that is publicly available and follows a research article, you get a web community of professionals that forms around your journal site.”
Greater transparency will benefit all
But beyond the practical benefits for publishers, Dr. Rice feels that social media and open access, together, provide an even more fundamental service for science and society by way of greater transparency. “Peer review is extremely opaque. It’s pseudo-objective because fields are so small and specialized” that the supposed anonymity of the process is impossible to maintain. “The myth of meritocracy is perhaps no stronger than in peer review. Good work doesn’t get published and often you can’t tell why. [The system] is opaque and subjective and that’s a terrible combination!” Science and society, he believes, would benefit from changing this process. Individual reactions might be no less subjective, but would, at least, be visible to the community.
Rice cites the example of the “arsenic life” debate (see our article “Scientific publication: the model and scandals”), which exploded on Twitter after the announcement of the discovery of a unique form of life that supposedly replaced the phosphorus in its DNA with arsenic. After the original press release spread via Twitter, a great deal of debate ensued among scientists on the microblogging site. Science writer Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer) was particularly involved. Some of this Twitter discussion was eventually published along with the research in question and, for Curt Rice, this was a huge step.
“The debate we see on blogs and on Twitter is an important advance in terms of transparency and power distribution.”"
Escaping the publishing prestige trap
Big steps are already being taken towards a more open science, thanks to various social media outlets, but the problem of a conservative system remains. Even if young, Twitter-savvy academics would be happy to post their work openly on the web, their careers – their funding and future promotions – depend on publishing in prestigious, traditional journals. How can we ever escape from this system? In a top-down solution, funding bodies like the NIH can mandate that research they fund be made available in an openly accessible archive. In a bottom-up approach, scientists can learn to accord the same prestige to OA journals that they do to traditional journals. That takes time, though, as any new journal has to prove its worth. Melissa Terras explains that it took Digital Humanities Quarterly several years of very good content and rigorous peer review to prove itself. Getting established scholars to lead the way in publishing in a new OA journal is part of the recipe, but “being answerable on social media helps…Discussions tend to be more immediate and people are more reachable, more approachable, more contactable.”
This accountability, provided by social media, makes open access even more open: a unique advantage over the traditional system of scientific publication. OA still needs to clarify some of the details of its economic model (For instance, it remains unclear who should pay for article processing fees: Authors? Libraries? University deans?), but this is not an insurmountable challenge. And once the kinks are worked out, the benefits will be felt beyond laboratory science, in the humanities and social sciences, the blogosphere and beyond.
The new digital tools for scientific research http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/05/03/the-new-digital-tools-for-scientific-research.html
Advances in Open Access à la Nature Publishing Group http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2012/04/17/advances-in-open-access-a-la-nature-publishing-group.html
Open access: Towards a new practice of scientific communication http://blog.mysciencework.com/en/2011/09/06/open-access-towards-a-new-practice-of-scientific-communication.html
To find out more:
Open Access in Science: MyScienceWork on Scoopit http://www.scoop.it/t/open-access-in-science
Scientific Social Networks: MyScienceWork on Scoopit http://www.scoop.it/t/scientific-social-network