Accelerating access to biomedical evidence

What brings open access to the edge of chaos? The perfect storm of open source, tenure, and economic imbalance

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[Clarification: As you will see in the first comment, T. Scott clarified that Edge of Chaos is the brainchild of Max Michael MD, Dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, with the assistance of the many creative people on his advisory board, The Naked Catfish]

My friend and colleague T. Scott Plutchak has launched a project with interpersonal and physical dimensions which he has named the Edge of Chaos, a phrase inspired by the author Steven Johnson.  Johnson, extrapolating from history,  suggests that  useful solutions to difficult problems occur in collaborative spaces with predictable patterns.  Spaces produce good solutions, provided that we can get vested parties to occupy the space

Plutchak has taken the notion that spaces produce good solutions and created a medical center community space  that can be reserved by collaborative groups (Academia + business + community = real solutions) to bring together competing perspectives that are holding back solutions to “wicked problems.”  In spite of the launch of this space with health problems in mind, there are no preconditions for any collaborative group confronting intractable problems to use the facility on a regular basis.

So you saw in the title of this piece my view of a wicked,  intractable perfect storm that has now begun to change the climate and optimism that open access holds. It wasn’t supposed to end up like this.

Open source software(OSS) is freely available with minimal technical support for use, a collaborative development model which puts early versions in user’s hands and asks for feedback to improve the next release.   Both non-profit and profit communities can easily obtain rapidly improving programs and products and invest resources instead in maintenance and making sure their version stays current, while reporting deficiencies.   ThePublic Knowledge Project (PKP) is an example of the influence and potential of  OSS, as well as where this tale begins.

Public Knowledge Project

PKP was founded at the University of British Columbia in 1998, as a collaboration to increase professional and public access to knowledge resources.  I call myself a supporter of open knowledge as well and have admired the non-profit work that PKP does, and for those that want to demonstrate their admiration in a practical way, attending the Fourth International PKP Scholarly Publishing Conference.  The specific output of PKP’s effort that I bring your attention to is called the Open Journals System(OJS).  From their web page:

“OJS assists with every stage of the refereed publishing process, from submissions through to online publication and indexing. Through its management systems, its finely grained indexing of research, and the context it provides for research, OJS seeks to improve both the scholarly and public quality of refereed research.

OJS is open source software made freely available to journals worldwide for the purpose of making open access publishing a viable option for more journals, as open access can increase a journal’s readership as well as its contribution to the public good on a global scale (see PKP Publications).”

The factor that qualifies this noble effort for its part in the perfect storm is that anyone with a basic understanding of downloading, installing, and configuring the software could start a publication, or many publications, without any inhibition or even academic background.  Apparently there is much interest in trying out the OJS.  Here are the statistics they post on their web site for registered downloads:

OJS Registered Downloads

OJS downloads (03/02/2013) Source:

To be fair , OJS may be the best known free and open software for publishing, but there are at least 11 other journal hosting packages that are free, with similar intent (source: Free and open-source journal management software)

The second part of the perfect storm is the survival of the traditional challenge to academic advancement at many institutions of higher learning, the tenure process and inevitable review of evidence to justify a faculty promotion.  One of the strongest criticisms of the tenure process is the need to “publish or perish”, a phrase which describes the pressure to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one’s career ascending career path or faculty profile.  As  public and private universities become more selective in promotion, and with a substantial emerging group of PhD students looking for post-doctoral research positions, the desire and pressure to quantitatively match their peers in meeting promotion or appointment requirements, new, less-experienced scholars must spend more time scrambling to publish whatever they can manage, rather than spending the qualitative time to develop  and report  the original results of a significant experiment.

The ease with which open access publishing allows for rapid consideration, publication and opportunity to have global visibility without a subscription barrier  is certainly attractive to those that feel the pressure and distraction to publish or perish.

By themselves, it would be hard to call either open source publishing software or the well-known pressures to publish for academic advance the critical mass of chaos, but the other ingredient in my thesis is the stagnant global economy and a staggering employment imbalance that we have experienced in the past five years.

The lack of professional employment opportunities for college graduates on a global scale has been documented, leaving many smart and educated people scrambling to find meaningful work and simply enough income to survive in their society and lifestyle.  Many have superior computer literacy and are simply caught in a global employment imbalance, which McKinsey & Company described in terms of  a tremendous under-supply of workers with certain skills and  a tremendous over-supply of less educated workers, including college graduates, with the wrong skills for available jobs. But there are many under-employed people that think creatively about how to earn income, or just fun trying to earn income, with the internet and technology.

Croatian and Dutch Hackers

Croatian and Dutch Hackers (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) source:

So in my view, the perfect storm of under-employed people with computer skills, pressured academics that need to publish, and software that can make anyone on the internet an academic journal publisher has created a perfect storm…. and 275+ publishers under scrutiny for appearing to solicit academics, librarians, and graduate students with opportunities to fast-track the open access publication of their research for an article publishing charge, most of the time deeply discounted in comparison with publishers that are members of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association(OASPA).

source: Wikimedia Commons

Returning to reserving a room at at the the Edge of Chaos, I believe that the credibility of self supported open access publishing in journals (Gold Open Access) is a tale of two cities:  researchers at select universities that help to launch or nurture the kind of funded open access represented by OASPA membership, and the continued demand and pressure to publish which makes the scrutinized publishers attractive because of perceived or qualitative barriers to higher ranked publications.  So if we go with the model proposed by Plutchak  (Academia + business + community = real solutions) , then we need academic officers responsible for tenure & promotion, members of OASPA, editors or publishers of some scrutinized journals,  representatives academic professional associations, a group of post-docs and junior faculty, and perhaps even a representative of the NIH Public Access Policy to figure out:

  • How academic professional organizations offer sufficient ways and means of documenting the results of research that could be accepted and adopted in many tenure decision processes.
  • How  scholarly publishers adopting open access models can follow guidance already available on documenting their credibility.
  • How to educate faculty on their publishing decisions and research impact, as well as how to scrutinize unsolicited offers to publish in open access.

I don’t think tools like  OJS can be blamed, as there are plenty of legitimate and unquestioned publications created with these tools.  Most of the problems I have identified have human roots in the world of academic performance, expectations, and academic credit models that have not changed as fast as the technology.


Sun, March 3 2013 » Uncategorized

2 Responses

  1. T Scott March 4 2013 @ 11:19

    Thanks for the shout-out for the Edge of Chaos, but you give me too much credit. It’s really the brainchild of Max Michael, Dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, with the assistance of the many creative people on his advisory board, The Naked Catfish. I’ve been privileged to play a role, but many people are making it happen.

  2. cjgberg March 4 2013 @ 15:33

    Thank you for the correction on my overstatement. I will append a clarification.

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