Self-Publishing and Scholarship Don’t Mix Well

On the heels of his well-read and well-commented post, A Publishing Person Self-Publishes (seriously, read the entire discussion), Andrew Kent writes about the important issue that self-published non-fiction must be held to a much higher standard than fiction.

The readers and writers on this blog tend to produce works in fiction genres like mystery, romance, and general literature. My novel, which I self-published and talked about in an earlier post that generated a lively discussion, is a mystery novel.

Self-publishing fiction is entirely fine, in my opinion.

But when it comes to scholarly works, things change.

I work in scholarly publishing and am editor-in-chief of a blog from the Society for Scholarly Publishing called The Scholarly Kitchen. Recently, the executive editor and I wrote about an experiment we cobbled together that revealed problems about how money and self-publishing can combine in academic publishing.

“Open access” is a decade-old movement in scholarly publishing. Its proponents believe that everyone should have access to taxpayer-funded research reports. Of course, creating a report, getting it peer-reviewed, and editing it into final form all takes time and money, so many open access journals are what they call “author-pays” journals. Instead of subscribers paying to receive the journal, or libraries paying to give electronic access to its patrons, the authors pay the journal’s processing fees.

There’s been some worry that author-pays journals might have lax peer-review standards. The more papers they publish, the argument goes, the more money they make, so why not publish the most papers possible? There’s some evidence that one prominent open-access publisher has taken this route.

The problem really emerges when peer-review of new findings is skirted or eliminated. Peer-review is vital to the trust and independence of scholarly communications. It can detect bias, eliminate error, and restrict claims of breakthroughs. It’s a key part of what makes scientific publishing trustworthy.

Our little experiment started with a computer program developed at MIT called SCIgen. This computer program, written “to maximize amusement, rather than coherence,” will create a fake, nonsensical computer science paper in minutes. These papers look credible, but one glimpse at the text tells you that the paper is gibberish. Here’s the introduction from the one I’m telling you about:

The synthesis of the Ethernet is a confusing grand challenge. Given the current status of knowledge-based archetypes, statisticians particularly desire the refinement of superpages, which embodies the practical principles of software engineering. In order to address this riddle, we investigate how web browsers can be applied to the construction of the Ethernet.

In addition, we attributed the research to the Center for Research in Applied Phrenology (CRAP). As if that’s not enough, phrenology is the pseudo-science of reading bumps on your head to divine your personality traits.

We submitted this paper to an author-pays publisher (Bentham Science) through their open access journal in computer science. Bentham was very aggressive about recruiting authors and papers, so we’d been asked repeatedly to submit a paper.

After four months, it was accepted without any evidence of peer-review. The most coherent communication they provided was the invoice.

Now while it’s tempting to blame Bentham Science, they’re only playing a role. A problem like this has deeper roots, and they emanate somewhat from the “publish or perish” culture of modern academia. To support their faculty by ensuring they get published, many universities and other academic institutions are creating pools of money to support author-pays publication. Yet, they aren’t monitoring how the money is being spent or revealing much information about how they’re using it, either. And therein lies the biggest problem.

Now, if a bunch of fiction writers were given access to scads of money to pay self-publishing houses to get their books out, that would be a good thing, I think. The only downside would be more fiction books. But in academia, being published is supposed to be a significant event – it usually means that the report being published passed muster with two or more peers and an expert editor. Even if an author pays for some services, the expectation is that these same barriers were cleared.

But money that has so few strings attached is easy money. So, if there’s a publisher willing to do a few things to maximize the number of papers they acquire and make certain these papers will be published, that publisher can get a lot of that easy money to come their way.

Most reputable journals reject a high percentage of papers that are submitted (up to 96% are rejected). Papers get rejected for a variety of reasons (the papers contribute nothing new, the science is bad, or the paper’s not right for their readers). This gate-keeping on scientific, medical, and technical information is vital to its integrity. An incentive system that could damage the trust and independence of the system has to be managed so that it doesn’t.

Self-publishing doesn’t make sense all the time. I wanted to write about this because while I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and believe it’s the future for many writers and genres, I think there’s a limit to the system we’re becoming familiar with. In my opinion, when it comes to expert non-fiction, we can’t go straight from pen to page, so to speak. We need barriers to ensure quality, integrity, and originality.

When fiction authors pay their way into publication with no gate-keeping, the worst accusation we have to withstand is probably “vanity.”

When scientists pay their way into publication without clearing hurdles of expertise and originality, the misinformation they might introduce could cause fundamental problems to our base of knowledge.

  • Peer review does have its value as the author of this article stated; however, it also has its negative side, called groupthink. If something contradicts fundamental and popular beliefs of the scientific community, it is likely to be tossed out. Yet, truly revolutionary ideas tend to contradict fundamental and popular beliefs of the scientific community.