Microchip or Flowbee?
Innovation is fickle. Some ideas are first-order flops. LaserDisc. USFL. New Coke. Fire Phone. Flowbee. Others are good, but not good enough - fond memories of you, BetaMax. And some revolutionize our world creating a new normal in the process. Automobile. Telephone. Airplane. Microchip. Internet. Amazon.
Academic publishing is one field that has been largely unchanged for a long, long time. Sure, the proliferation of Open Access (OA) disrupted the financial model a bit, but it hasn't uprooted the overall paradigm of writing a manuscript, submitting it to a journal, and then wait, wait, still waiting for several overworked, underpaid academics to review the manuscript before an editor decides whether or not the paper is suitable for publication. This sloooooow process keeps science on the shelf for months or even years before it becomes available to the public. When I think about institutions that are ripe for disruptive innovation, academic publishing is pretty high on the list. Over the years, academic innovators have been pushing the idea of OA Pre-Publication, which is when manuscripts are published before or during the peer-review process. This concept is the basis for preprint servers, which provide authors and readers subject-based access points for publishing and discovering research before publication. In theory, OA Pre-Publication will increase the pace of scientific discovery because new ideas and advances become immediately available. There is also the possibility that preprints will lead to better quality papers in the traditional journals because preprints are subject to more critique than is possible from just a handful of reviewers.
While I've been aware of preprint servers for some time, I've kept my distance out of concern for unintended consequences. Maybe science needs to be slow? Maybe the wonderful speed of pre-publication is just too compatible with the publish-or-perish academic grind and preprint servers become laden with shitty papers - wouldn't this lessen the value and impact of the good ones? Maybe the press - in their race to win the 24-hour news beat - reports on these shitty papers, which devalues the entire scientific enterprise. Maybe preprints are just an academic Flowbee?
But lately, I've spent some time considering the positive side of unintended consequences. Perhaps these academic innovators create a Peer Review Server, where academics publish and review each others' preprints? What if a grassroots academic community figures out how to close the preprint loop with a structured OA peer review process? What if preprint servers are the beginning of a multi-generational disruption than cuts out subscription journals completely? What if OA Pre-Publication is the basis for a new paradigm for academic publishing? What if preprints are an academic Microchip?!
Unfortunately, my crystal ball is out for repairs today, but it seems to me that Open Access Pre-Publication has enough momentum to become a truly disruptive force in academic publishing. And so my curiosity with pre-publication has reached its tipping point and I'm dipping my academic toes in the preprint swimming pool. My first preprint is now available on EarthArXiv. And I'm closing this dispatch with a big shout-out to the folks at EarthArXiv and the early adopters who are pushing preprints across the geosciences landscape. Change is long overdue and I'm interested to see where this goes.