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One of the peer review workshop activities

Yes, it’s workshop time! This was my first Researcher to Reader conference, and I found the event very enjoyable (even if I had to participate in a workshop, which prevented me from falling asleep, as I usually do in conferences). The real theme that emerged from the conference were not just the ones listed on the publicity: for me, the message was that inequality, both sexual and ethnic, is very much alive and not yet checked in publishing.

Unlike more orthodox conferences, Researcher to Reader made an admirable attempt to cover a wider number of roles within the academic landscape. There was little display of academic publishers talking to each other with wilful disregard for a wider community (as sometimes happens at STM events). Some innovations compared to the mainstream included:

  1. Inviting a wider range of speakers. This year, there was a presentation from Sabine Hossenfelder, a German research physicist, well known as a science populariser and controversialist: she has a widely read blog and writes for several mainstream publications. In addition, there was a speaker from the University of the West of England who specialises in promoting equality in higher education – a theme that turned out to be echoed throughout the conference.
  2. Running a series of workshops. These workshops are quite elaborate affairs, involving three sessions over the two days. They tackled big issues such as improving peer review support for researchers (which I attended), and “practicality and purity – commerce in the academy”, which deserved an award for the title alone. While the workshops achieved little in terms of genuine output, they provided a great opportunity to chat to other attendees and to learn about other perspectives in the academic landscape.
  3. A debate on the validity (or otherwise) of journal reputations: is a paper more trustworthy if it appears in Nature? I changed my mind during the debate, clearly a common response among many of the audience, given the alarming statistics Toby Green revealed about retractions and dubious activities connected with several of the so-called reliable journals.
  4. Usefully, the event had a good spread of delegates and speakers from North America, which made the conversations more meaningful. However, there was little sign of participants from the Far East, which, given the importance of China and other countries in the scholarly publishing landscape, was a shame.

I won’t attempt to cover all the presentations here, but for me, the ones that stood out (either because they were good or because they were noticeably poor) were Tasha Mellins-Cohen at the Microbiology Society, outlining how her company was putting PlanS ideas into action by creating Read and Publish agreements and, potentially, flipping entire journals to open access at some point in the future.

Less impressive was the keynote from Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the Institute for Scientific Information. He gravely warned us about the danger of relying too much on citations – “You can manipulate what is going on”. Yet ISI, under Eugene Garfield, were responsible for the introduction of citation measurements and have profited from it ever since.If anyone can fix the citation problem, they can. Despite this, he stated “it’s not my job to tell you how to exercise more scrutiny” [to ensure that the citation system is not subverted]. Instead, he saw it as his job to report back on good metrics (whatever they are). Not a very good advert for citation rankings.

There was a very impressive talk, via video link, from Solomon Derese of the University of Nairobi, describing the stark contrast between higher education in the the well-funded West, and African universities. Indeed, there were only six universities in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) outside of South Africa in 1944. Even relatively wealthy African universities suffered terribly from the financial recession in Africa: his own university stopped all journal subscriptions in 1989. The share of SSA authors in world scientific publishing actually went down between 1987 and 1996, from 1% to 0.7%. There could be no clearer statement of the disparity of access between the rich countries and the rest of the world. So an initiative such as Research4Life is very timely.

The R2R debate, this year on the subject of authority (“The venue of its publication tells us nothing useful about the quality of a paper”) raised some interesting issues. The statement that high-impact journals have higher rates of retraction was used by both sides both to support and to discredit the journal ranking system. Yet I couldn’t disagree that when I read a news article, my perception of the story is inevitably coloured by where it appears. I treat a story in The Washington Post very differently to a story in The Daily Mirror; in other words, authority matters.

I was also impressed by the comment from the floor that we cannot evaluate peer review data if it is not publicly available – a powerful argument (I would have thought) for open peer review.

Unfortunately, the debate lost its way at some points between journal quality and peer review – it was not a debate about peer review. And the debate was promptly trumped by a genuine researcher describing her actual practice. Sabine Hossenfelder (already mentioned above), a Frankfurt-based research physicist, revealed her methodology for choosing from some 200 or so applications for a post-doc position. Her criteria were:

  1. Choose people that you know (admittedly, if a male physicist had said this it might have been questioned more);
  2. Check how many papers have they published;
  3. Check which journals were they published in.

In other words, the reputation of the journal matters – we all use it.

The theme of non-equality returned with a vengeance at the end. The conference concluded with a remarkable talk by Richard Charkin. One of the most senior figures in UK publishing (he is now 70 and claimed 48 years experience in publishing), Charkin has headed educational, academic and trade publishers. He is one of the few bosses in UK publishing with a reputation outside the industry. So some of his admittedly off-the cuff references were rather surprising. He described how far the industry has progressed during his career by revealing an appalling advert at Pergamon Press for a “Miss Pergamon 1973” prize, for which the (female) applicant had to provide their vital statistics, and for which the prize was a weekend in Paris. However, just as he concluded his talk saying how much better things are today, he was picked up on this very point by Alicia Wise, pointing out that the sexual equality has not yet been achieved – there remains a significant disparity of income between men and women in publishing. And, looking around the room, the ethnic diversity of publishing remains well below the average. There were males and females, but they were all (apart from a handful) white.

Charkin very gallantly took several questions from the floor, and didn’t hold back from providing an opinion. For him, open access is a threat, because “without copyright, we devalue the product”. Of all the arguments against open access, this is one of the least likely. I haven’t noticed publishers complaining about open-access journal publishing, and if authors want their content disseminated, here is a way to do it. Nonetheless, the best you can hope from any conference is a range of opinions that get you thinking, and R2R provided this in spades.