A Blog Around The Clock

It’s been a while since I came back from Boston, but the big dinosaur story kept me busy all last week so I never managed to find time and energy to write my own recap of the Harvard Conference.

Anna Kushnir, Corie Lok, Evie Brown, Kaitlin Thaney (Part 2 and Part 3) and
Alex Palazzo have written about it much better than I could recall from my own “hot seat”. Elizabeth Cooney of Boston Globe has a write-up as well. Read them all.

So, here is my story, in brief….and pictorial, just like the first part (under the fold).

The Keynote

About an hour or so before the conference, we started assmebling in a room that acted as HQ for the event. There we met the student organizers of the meeting: Kishore Kuchibotla, Zeba Wunderlich, Anna Kushnir, Michelle and her cousin:

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And that is where we got to meet the other panelists, including Hilary Spencer and Robert Kiley:

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Finally got to meet Dr.Harold Varmus, one of the three founders of PLoS, who was the Keynote Speaker there. He is so nice and personable. I had a nice, elegant PLoS tie in my pocket, ready to deploy (OK, ready to ask Alex to tie a knot in it if and when needed), but Harold said that a tie is not a part of a “PLoS image” so I never put it on and was grateful for it.

Harvard Provost Steven Hyman started the symposium with an opening address relating to the history of publishing (and photocopying what was published in the library), where it is now, and what is Harvard doing about it.

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Then, Harold Varmus gave a talk explaining what Open Access is (and what it is not, but sometimes poses as OA), how it works, why it is good, and why it is inevitable. Did you know that the paper he won his Nobel for is not available online (OK, it is now, because a professor in Iowa copied it and pasted it on his course homepage)? He diagnosed the problems in the structure of academia as well as in the publishing industry that stand as obstacles to the move towards Open Access and suggested some possible ways to remove such obstacles. He understands that OA will have an effect on the way science is done and scientific departments and institutes are organized and run:

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Panel One

The First Panel on Open Access Publishing (with Emilie Marcus, Stuart Shieber, Isaac Kohane and Robert Kiley) was quite constructive. What did I learn there?

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First, that I am not yet ready to debate this issue in a public forum. There are fine details of licences, copyright, peer-review and business models that I am not as fluent with yet as some other people are. It probably takes some time to learn all those details. Harold made it look easy, but I don’t think I have a ready answer to each claim made by the critics of Open Access yet. For the time being I should go to science conferences and not yet to publishers’ meetings until I beef up on all that material.

Second, a number of people there just came back from the Society for Neuroscience conference and mentioned the new Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium, which will facilitate cascading peer-review between a number of neuroscience journals, i.e., the reviews from one journal (where the paper was rejected) can be transferred to the next journal, and next and next, until the paper is finally published or rejected. This will speed up the process and free up a lot of reviewers’ time.

Third, Stuart Shieber did us all a service by starting the discussion with a clear differentiation between two questions. The first question is static: is OA good and inevitable? The answer is an obvious and emphatic Yes, and there is not much more to debate there. The second question is dynamic: how do we get from here to there without cataclysmic effects on scientific publishing? In other words, how do we avoid the potential negative consequences, and what aspects of the current system are worth preserving and which ones are not. Here, there is a lot to discuss and there are many valid positions one can take.

Thus, it is not surprising that most of the discussion on the First Panel centered on the business aspects of science publishing. Will the move to OA upset the current hierarchies and is that good or bad? Will it result in some organizations being forced to close shop entirely? How would it affect the publishing in humanities? What is the role of academic libraries?

This debate is obviously not all Black And White. Many of the concerns by the publishers, represented here by Emilie Marcus, are legitimate. She is the editor of Cell and obviously a very good one. She wants to preserve the high stature of Cell as a journal. Certainly nobody wants to see Cell fail. But her efforts directly feed into what Harold calls “CNS disease” – the common practice in some areas of biomedical science at some universities to decide jobs, promotions and tenure according to the number of publications in Cell, Nature and Science. This practice boosts the reputation of Cell, Nature and Science (at the expense of other good journals). Their Impact Factor goes up, leaving the competition in the dust, thus further feeding the CNS disease.

If the Impact Factor of journals gets abandoned, as we hope it will, and is replaced by impacts of individual papers regardless of the venue of publication (or, as I argued before, the impacts of individuals rather than papers), then CNS disease will be cured. This break of the feed-forward mechanism will inevitably lead to the leveling of the playing field and the relative diminishment of the reputatons of Cell, Nature and Science in comparison to others – without the Impact Factor, they will have to base their reputation on long history, excellent editing, and additional services (e.g., editorials, news&views, job ads, etc.), a game in which they do not have as much of a leg-up on other journals as they have in the Impact Factor game.

So, Emilie’s resistance is understandable – she does not want her journal to be one of many, but Number One. But if you are a young researcher, you want this world to change, you want to be evaluated on the quality of your work and not on the journals you published in. There are far more good researchers than the slots for papers in these three journals and thus inevitably some worthy people’s careers will be ruined by the editorial decisions. Is it necessary to work in a “hot” area and produce media-worthy papers in order to get a job? How does that affect the life in the lab? Why does the CNS disease produce super-competitiveness, secretiveness, jealousy, fear-of-scooping, motivation to cheat and other by-products that are obviously bad for the practice of science? Science is supposed to be a collaborative and joyfull enterprise.

So, as I noted above, this is not a Black And White debate. There is quite a lot of grey (as well as other colors) in between.

On one end are the vocal proponents of Open Access who fully understand why this is necessary, while sometimes being fuzzy about “how to get from here to there”.

On the opposite end are the nasty folks, whose motivation is only greed and who have absolutely no interest in science, no care for public interest, and no scruples. Just like Creationists, they have a small and limited number of “talking points” which are pure lies. And just like a few months of reading Panda’s Thumb and Talk Origins can make it easy to debunk every Creationist claim, so it is pretty easy to debunk every claim by those people who lie about Open Access. This was amply demonstrated when the blogosphere tore PRISM to pieces, rendering it completely useless as an advocacy tool. The public outrage they engendered resulted in pushing many publishers and universities to publicly distance themselves from PRISM. A couple of people resigned because of it. The NIH bill passed in the Senate with an overwhelming majority (the Senators started pleading to stop asking people to call them – yes, they knew and understood the importance of OA and were voting for it, please, please stop!).

The folks behind PRISM, or people like Joseph Esposito or the Big Honchos at the American Chemical Society deserve all the anger and ridicule they get. Just like Creationists, they should be squashed every time they have the gall to appear in public and utter a word.

But being able to debunk dishonest claims is not sufficient to be able to publicly debate a Creationist, or for that matter an opponent of Open Access. At a public debate the goal is not only to shame the opponents into retreating back into their holes, but also in changing the minds of people in the audience. And that is where a lot of problems arise. Your opponents may not be the people on the Black end of the continuum but somewhere in the middle – how do you tackle them?

For instance, how do you treat organizations that make first baby-steps in the right direction but do not go all the way yet? Chastize them for not going full throttle, or praise them for the courage to start in the right direction? This is exactly like the framing debate: people think that it is an either-or dilemma. But it is not.

The debate exists in two distinct domains: public and private. Publicly, one has to provide the vision of the future in which Open Access rules, why it is necessary and why it is light-years better than what we have now. Publicly, one has to smack down the PRISM-like liars as hard as possible. Publicly, the organizations that make baby-steps should not be even mentioned – their cases muddy-up the story and are not interesting to the broader audience anyway. Privately, though, such organizations need to be praised and offered help to make the next step as soon as they are ready. They need hand-holding, not public praise. And they are not going to be deterred, but actually inspired, by the publicly touted vision of their final goal – the OA. They want to be on the winning team.

Some people disagree and think that the pro-OA rhetoric is too harsh and thus counter-productive. The same old, worn-out argument rendered against Dawkins in the realm of religious discourse. Heh! They think that touting OA in public and smacking down enemies of OA in public will make people retreat into TA. The opposite is true (as in the case of Dawkins, and even easier due to lack of emotional self-identification). Publishers who are making baby-steps towards OA do not identify with the likes of PRISM and will not feel personally offended when PRISM gets a public fisking. They know it is not them who are attacked when opponents of OA get attacked. And they are not asking for public praise – private encouragement is sufficient.

This kind of clear-cut public rhetoric (OA good, TA bad) is neccessary to move the Overton Window. If we introduce all the intermediate steps into the discussion and publicly praise them, the result is the stopping of the Overton Window and slowing down the move towards OA. Baby-steps will be seen as good enough in themselves instead of just milestones on a journey and will tend to freeze there, at that stage, and never continue moving towards true OA.

For instance, this guy Marcus came to give a talk at PLoS a couple of weeks ago with exactly that kind of fallacious argument against the proper public rhetoric on the issue. I called in and could not resist giving him a little lecture on public rhetoric. Judging from his post, he did not “get it” yet (yes, he thought I called from Cambridge, not Chapel Hill). So, this debate also has its share of “Chamberlain-ists”, I guess, not brave enough to be less than satisfied with half-measures and also not being aware of the power of the opposition and the power of words that the dishonest opposition knows how to use. Dezenhell is a PR master and needs to be counteracted in kind and in full force. The opposition will not settle for the middle – they want to win 100% and will use every weapon available to get it. Only the courage to fight for a 100% victory for our side can counteract such a devious force. Mealy-mouthed middle just makes the fight more difficult for all of us. Fear of backlash just lets the enemy roll over us. They do not play nice. The only argument they know is force. We did not crush PRISM by being nice. But by being forceful, angry and using ridicule – the language they understand. They thought they were alpha-males, but now they are relegated to the outer edges of the troup, licking their wounds. And they know it. And now they are afraid to come after us again. Omega-male Baboons.

Panel Two

The people on the Second Panel were Moshe Pritsker of JoVE, John Wilbanks of Science Commons, Hilary Spencer of Nature Precedings and me.

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Moshe (who I first met at Scifoo) explained the Journal of Visualized Experiments. They have employed a number of professional film-makers in big cities around the country to help scientists make high-quality movies of scientific procedures. Those movies are then posted on the site and may be further either embedded into or linked from relevant papers that utilize the technique shown in the movie.

John demonstrated the work they did on building a semantic web in science (an area where the web lags behind some other areas of life) – this provided a stark reminder of why Open Access is necessary. Information behind pay-walls is undetectable by such algorithms and thus keeps a lot of valuable information out of reach of scientists who need to gather as complete information on a topic as possible.

Hilary showed us Nature Precedings (which you know I am enthusiastic about) a pre-submission peer-review site, where one can get feedback on ideas, hypotheses or work in progress (and perhaps find collaborators) before submission to a peer-reviewed journal. I segued into PLoS ONE (actually TOPAZ platform) as an example of a post-publication peer-review, where peer-reviewed and published papers get additional peer-review over time. I joked that it should be called “PLoS Postcedings” in order to show how the two – Nature Precedings and PLoS ONE – complement each other, with the traditional peer-review in-between.

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I showed how ratings, annotations, discussions and trackbacks on TOPAZ-hosted journals keep the paper alive and connect it to the broader world of science communication (including science blogs). I used my old example of the 1953 Nature paper describing the structure of DNA: if there was PLoS ONE at the time to publish it in, we would now have 54 years of commentary all there in one place, the debates, the links to papers that cited it, trackbacks to blogs that discussed it, the public admissions of changing one’s mind and everything else that is now forever gone. So, think of each new paper as a beginning of such a conversation.

And yes, it is a conversation. Blogs are a conversation, too. But what we are thinking of (and I am happy to see that both Harold Varmus and Hilary Spenser think in the same terms) is capturing conversations that now go on in the conference hallways or lab meetings or journal clubs. Making the science public. I also noted my observations about the rhetoric of comments on ONE, i.e., how comments by scientists-bloggers and scientists-non-bloggers differ in length and style and wondered out loud where the happy medium will emerge in the future.

Both Hilary and I were asked some similar questions. Neither one of us has any idea if younger folks are more likely to use the interactive tools than their more senior colleagues but we both came up with some counter-examples. PLoS ONE apparently has a better rate of user activity, so far, than Nature Precedings, as well as less trouble with pseudoscience peddlers posting comments. Neither one of us knew (or wanted to reveal) the exact traffic numbers, though of course they vary from paper to paper – the articles picked up by the media, e.g.., by Steve Irwin (and now Paul Sereno) brought in tons of traffic, while some other papers do not get nearly as much. Nothing wrong with that.

Both Harold and I worked mightily all day to dispell the myth that PLoS ONE is not peer-reviewed. It is. Just like any other journal. If 30-40% of manuscripts are rejected, the peer-review must be doing something right (many small journals accept more than 90% of their submissions!). I’ve seen many papers go through two or three rounds of revisions before they are finally accepted or rejected by ONE. This does not differ in any way from other serious journals. The only thing our reviewers are not supposed to think about is “is this paper media-worthy?” They seriously dissect the manuscripts on the quality of work and writing, though.

Another question that came from the audience took me aback somewhat (although I heard it once before, but I did not expect to hear it at Harvard) – it assumed that PLoS ONE papers are changeable, i.e,. some kind of editable, living documents. That is absolutely not true. Once a paper goes through the peer-review and all the revisions and finally gets published it remains in exactly the same form forever, as long as there is electricity, internet and humans on this planet. If an author made an error, the only way that can be fixed is by adding an annotation – the paper itself will never be edited. PLoS ONE is not a blog, it is a scientific journal, and as such requires permanency.

The session as whole was quite lively. I think it put some meat onto the theoretical discussions of the first panel, showing examples of the future of scientific communication, of which scientific publishing is a key piece, and demonstrated – heck, made it obvious – that Open Access is necessary for that future. While the need for OA in medicine, public health and science in general were common themes of the symposium, I ended the meeting with a reminder of its importance in education, retelling my anecdote from the Lawrence Hall of Science and reminding everyone that if universities cannot afford subscriptions to journals, high schools are even less able to do so.


After the panel was over, we were treated with some wine and cheese. It took me at least 20 minutes before I finally got to the wine table as everyone wanted to talk to me, or at least take pictures. For instance, I talked to Neeru Paharia about her AcaWiki project and how well it could work together with the BPR3. Those are Kaitlin Thaney, Corie Lok, Neeru Paharia and Evie Brown in the pictures.

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Anna’s pictures are much better than mine, though. Now you can go back and read the first part of this post, on how much fun we all had in Boston


  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 21, 2007

    As people read long posts superficially, let me just pre-empt the criticism by pointing out how hard I tried to differentiate between those on the extreme who need to be squashed (e.g., PRISM) and those who have legitimate concerns and deserve respect (e.g., Emilie Marcus).

  2. #2 Pedro Beltrao
    November 22, 2007

    Thanks for the post, interesting meeting. I really liked the idea for interchange of reviews among the neuroscience journals. I think there are many more initiates like this that are important to pursue (shared reviewer databases, common standards to communicate information about papers, etc). As you say, the value of a journal should not be about any self sustaining monopoly of perceived impact and if possible the underlying peer-review and other infrastructures should be a leveled playing field. This would really spur innovation.

    I am not going to go into the debate on the OA rhetoric :), that would be a full post by itself.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    November 23, 2007

    Excellent post! I have a few comments and a question.

    First, the question: What specifically did Varmus suggest would be changes to “the way science is done and scientific departments and institutes are organized and run” that will result from the move to OA?

    Now, two comments:

    “But if you are a young researcher, you want this world to change, you want to be evaluated on the quality of your work and not on the journals you published in.”

    Some young researchers benefit from the current system, and presumably do not want things to change. Those who are in circumstances that enable them to publish in CNS have an advantage over their competitors for scarce resources and would not want to give up that advantage.

    In relation to the neuroscience publishing consortium, I wonder about the following issue. As things stand, neuroscientists attempt to assess the importance of each of their papers in deciding where to submit. The best, most important work that isn’t going to make it at CNS gets submitted to Nature Neuroscience or Neuron, followed by Journal of Neuroscience, followed by more specialized journals. If authors get the option to just send off an e-mail in order to trickle an already-reviewed paper down, won’t it decrease the incentive to self-edit for importance?

    If this turns out to be the case, then Neuron and Nature Neuroscience will end up with more initial submissions than they currently receive, and will shoulder much more of the peer review burden than journals that receive the trickle downs. In essence, Neuron and Nature Neuroscience will end up serving as the peer review system for many Journal of Neuroscience papers.