Monday, July 13, 2009

Dung Beetle Armament and the Real Threats to Scientific Publishing

To illustrate an article on dung beetle armament, the New York Times Science section published a graphic with a spectacular montage of 35 animals with grotesque armaments, ranging from the Narwhal to the Giraffe Weevil. 13 of them are extinct. The reason that many dung beetles have evolved such elaborate armaments is not so much that they are effective in combat with other dung beetles, but rather that female dung beetles select mates based upon the outward display of combat fitness.

In my last post, I argued that scholarly publishers were not being threatened by imminent disruption by the same factors that have the newspaper publishing industry on the brink. I suggested that a potential vulnerability of the scholarly publishing industry would be the disintegration of the linkage between the industry's activity, publishing scholarly articles, and the industry's main revenue source- library subscriptions. I see two possible ways that this could occur. It could occur through a collapse of library funding; I hope to discuss that in a future post. This post discusses another way this could occur: I think there is a possibility that the adoption of social networking technologies will lead to a collapse of scholarly publishing as it exists today.

If this sounds a bit far-fetched, consider the parallels between scholarly publishing and dung beetle armament. The development of scholarly publishing today is driven by the selections made by authors about where and how to publish articles. The authors ultimate goal is to propagate their work and thus gain tenure, status and funding, just as "the ultimate goal" of the female dung beetle is to gain a safe tunnel to enjoy dung and raise baby dung beetles. The authors do not really know which journals do the best job of propagating their work, but they recognize prestige and the badges of prestige, and they know what sorts of publications will look best to their tenure committees. Authors do not consider the cost of journals any more than female dung beetles consider the energy cost of male armature. The size and form of today's scholarly publishing ecosystem is thus driven to a significant extent by the superficial judgments of tenure committees.

Anything that might change the way tenure committees, and thus authors, perceive journal publication has the potential to reverse the fortunes of journal publishers. To my mind, social networking technologies have that potential as do few other other things on the horizon. The reason is that tenure decisions have used journal publication records as objective measures of a candidate's social status within the scientific community. Publication in a prestigious journal has been an important way for scholars to become known, to gain speaking invitations, and to advance ideas. But publications are only part of this process. Knowing the right people, studying with the right professors, schmoozing at conferences, all of these are probably more important to the advancement of new ideas, but they have been very hard to measure in any objective way.

Social network technologies open new possibilities for the propagation of new ideas and for the assessment the impact of those ideas. Already, we see people using the number of followers they have on Twitter or the number of recommendations they have on LinkedIn as measures of social status, so it's not much of a stretch to imagine that similar measures could be used to evaluate young academics or to award grants. It's beyond dispute that Twitter is already being widely used to propagate links to interesting technical papers and posts on scientific subjects. If targeted development of social network-based evaluation methodologies were pursued by groups such as the library community who wish to re-inject usage and low-cost access into the tenure equation, the competitive environment for scholarly and scientific publishers could change radically.

Every threat is an opportunity, of course, and it's equally possible that social networking technologies could reinforce the scholarly publishing industry- after all, dung beetle armaments evolve to adapt to changing fashion choices among female dung beetles. A potential weakness- for example, the unwillingness of people to post or retweet links to subscriber-only content, could turn into strengths if publishers develop access models that grant special access for re-tweeted links or an author's Facebook friends. Publishers could also try to ward off challengers in the scholar evaluation game by developing improved and more ostentatious badges of honor- best paper prizes, awards for the most forwarded paper, etc.

In fact, I've come up with a mathematical model for how all this will evolve. First, assume a spherical dung beetle...

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