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Scholarly Communication 101

Motivation: Considering the (current!) focus of this blog on scholarly communication, I wish to give my own take on what it is. This post will probably be expanded over time, to make sure the information is sufficiently comprehensive (not to mention topical and accurate).
Problem statement: No clear overview of a key concept of this blog’s main focus just yet.

I wish to give a little bit of information on the concept of scholarly communication in general. Particularly focused on the scientific paper and the journal publisher as they are the primary container and distribution channel for scientific knowledge respectively .

See, in a nutshell, this is how it works:

  • Scientists do research;
  • Scientists record their activities and their findings in a document/ manuscript;
  • Scientists submit document/ manuscript to an objective (third party) institution (e.g. a journal publisher);
  • The journal publisher fulfills the 4 fundamental functions of scholarly communication: registration, awareness, certification and archive [Roosendaal and Geurts, 1997];
  • If it passes the certification requirement, which is standardly a process called “peer review”, the knowledge will be published in its journal;
  • From this point on the information is further communicated in various forms, television, websites, blogs, radio, forums and so forth;
  • Also reaching perhaps the most important receiver of that communication, their fellow peers, to be utilized for research purposes;
  • Rinse and repeat, arriving at a full circle.

The Scholarly Communication Model
The functions of scholarly communication, which essentially define the purpose and requirements of a scholarly communication model, are so important that I will point to a summary to them (I’m not entirely sure why [Van de Sompel, 2006] is speaking of 5 functions while the original authors mentioned 4 but its addition seems pretty valid to me):

  • Registration, which allows claims of precedence for a scholarly finding.
  • Certification, which establishes the validity of a registered scholarly claim.
  • Awareness, which allows participants in the scholarly system to remain aware of new claims and findings.
  • Archiving, which preserves the scholarly record over time.
  • Rewarding, which rewards participants for their performance in the communication system based on metrics derived from that system.

As the journal publisher is the first (and the most established) to fulfill all of these functions, everything else serves as a reinforcement of this model and these functions. Most of them are reinforcing the awareness and the rewarding functions. Of course they archive them, too, in their own way, but archiving something that has already been “formally” archived is not very significant from the perspective of preservation. The same logic applies to how they do not generally carry out the registration function.

Their role in supporting the certification function is a different matter, though. The full circle concept shows why science is a “self-corrective” process: the knowledge is used, and whoever uses it will confirm its accuracy by having results that conform with what is described in the paper. Thus, while the certification function of the journal model is very significant, the real test of validity comes in applying that knowledge by peers and confirming the expected/described results. In terms of the speed to find and correct errors: the more significant/sensational the science, the quicker and better it is verified by other qualified scholars. Likewise the less significant/sensational the scientific knowledge, the lower the odds of it being put to practice and the longer it takes to have it verified. However, as its utility rate is low, it largely does not matter in the odd chance that the information is wrong: as it is not being used anyhow.

Therefore, even if the certification function of journal publishers fails, which is sadly not a rare occurrence, science has a way to check and correct itself for accuracy eventually. A beautiful system indeed, as long as people are open to modifications (and expectations that it might not be correct). On a somewhat related note, this is how Paul Ginsparg, the founder of the world’s largest Open Access e-print archive, words it on the subject of fraudulent work, in Ars Technica’s “Plagiarism and falsified data slip into the scientific literature: a report” by John Timmer:

“There’s little effect on science,” Dr. Ginsparg said, “since the people who produce high quality work don’t need to plagiarize, and the people who do need to plagiarize don’t produce high enough quality work to affect anything.”

Perhaps a bit rough around the corner, but I think this makes sense, too. And how to find out whether a paper/journal is any good? Well, there are plenty established indicators of quality, aside from the certification function. But since the certification done by the journal publisher is the first quality filter, let us go with that.

Peer Review, Citation Count and the Impact Factor
The certification function of the journal publisher model is called the peer review. Traditionally speaking, peer review is the process of peers scrutinizing the manuscripts, to determine whether the manuscript is of sufficient quality for the institution’s standards standards. There are two main established types of (third party) organizations that can intermediate and oversee this peer review process, and they are the journal publisher and the grant institutions for publication and/or funding purposes.

Instead of blogging my own take on the ins and outs of peer review, there is already so much information on it that I guess that is not necessary. So here are a couple of links I recommended on the topic of scholarly communication and peer review:

Peer Review: the challenges for the humanities and social sciences
Peer Review, a postnote of The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

So that is it concerning the peer review. But that in itself is not a very objective measurement of the quality of the paper. As it depends on the journal’s standards, the peer reviewers, the authors and of course the journal editors. So clearly, there is a need for objective indicators of manuscript and journal quality. There are a number of established quality indicators, but the most established two are the citation count and the journal impact respectively.

The (manuscript) citation count is quite simply the number of times a paper has been cited by other (published) articles. So a paper with a citation count of 50, has been cited by 50 papers. The (journal) impact factor is the number of current citations to articles published in a specific journal in a two year period divided by the total number of articles published in the same journal in the corresponding two year period [3]. For example: The journal Cell has an impact factor of 39.191, i.e. every article published in issues of Cell in 1992 and 1993 was quoted in 1994 an average of just over 39 times. Every article in Nature for the same period was quoted in 1994 just over 25 times [4].

More on this at the following links:
3. The Thomson Scientific Impact Factor
4. Impact Factor, Immediacy Index, Cited Half-life
5. Glossary of Thomson Scientific terminology

Financial Sustainability: Traditional vs Open Access
Traditional = Access to literature is charged (subscription, exclusive access and so forth).
Open Access = Access to literature is free of charge.

Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions [6]. OA is compatible with copyright, peer review (and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance), revenue (even profit), print, preservation, prestige, career-advancement, indexing, and other features and supportive services associated with conventional scholarly literature. The legal basis of OA is either the consent of the copyright holder or the public domain, usually the former. The campaign for OA focuses on literature that authors give to the world without expectation of payment.

On scholarly communication and Open Access in general, I found the following good reads on the topic:
6. Open Access Overview. Focusing on open access to peer-reviewed research articles and their preprints.
And two more by the House of Commons: Science and Technology Committee:
7. Scientific Publications: Free for all?
8. Responses to the Committee’s Tenth Report, Session 2003-04, Scientific Publications: Free for all?

Well, that should cover the more important things concerning scholarly communication. Will update as I see fit.

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