GitWikXiv follow-up: A path to forkable papers

[Other posts in this series: 1,2,3.]

I now have a more concrete idea of some of the pie-in-the-sky changes I would like to see in academic publishing in the long term. I envision three pillars:

  • “Scientifica”: a linked, universally collaborative document that takes the reader from the most basic introductory concepts to the forefront of research.Edit 2016-4-22: I am embarrassed that I did not make it clear when this was initially posted that the Scientifica idealization is mostly a product of Godfrey Miller. Hopefully he didn’t notice… a   Imagine a Wikipedia for all of science, maintained by researchers. Knowen and Scholarpedia are early prototypes, although I believe a somewhat stronger consensus mechanism akin to particle physics collaborations will be necessary.
  • ArXiv++: a central repository of articles that enables universal collaboration through unrestricted forking of papers. This could arise by equipping the arXiv with an open attribution standard and moving toward a copyleft norm (see below).
  • Discussion overlay: There is a massive need for quick, low-threshold commentary on articles, although I have fewer concrete things to say about this at the moment. For the time being, imagine that each arXiv article accumulated nestedNested comments are just comments that allow comment-specific replies, organized in a hierarchy; see here for a visual example. b   comments (or other annotations) that the reader could choose to view or suppress, and which could be added to with the click of a button.

The conceptual flow here is that bleeding-edge research is documented on the arXiv, is discussed on the overlay, and — when it has been hashed out through consensus — it is folded into Scientifica. However, most of this becomes unworkably frictionful when copyrights and community norms inhibit universal collaboration by requiring each new author to personally collaborate with the existing authors of an article, or (alternatively) to write a new document from scratch. In fact, I conjecture that the single most important transition in moving toward the lofty dreams above will be getting researchers to release their writing under a copyleft license:

Copyleft is the practice of offering people the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions of a work with the stipulation that the same rights be preserved in derivative works down the line…[U]nder copyleft, an author may give every person who receives a copy of the work permission to reproduce, adapt, or distribute it, with the accompanying requirement that any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same licensing agreement.

Wikipedia (which is built on a copyleft license) is the most widely known monument to the triumph of this concept, but software developers can testify to the even bigger impact copyleft has had by enabling the vibrant open-source software community. Copyleft is crucial for building a single authoritative source (like Wikipedia), but it can also give huge potential gains to writing large review papers, fixing errors, and other aspects of universal collaboration in academia.

A more familiar but distinct concept in academia is open access, or to be specific, gratis open access. This is the idea that published academic articles should not be locked down by journal subscriptions, and it is essentially captured by the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivative (CC-BY-ND) license. Academic work released in this way would be freely available for everyone, but could not necessarily be modified.Technically, you are usually allowed to modify it for your personal use, as long as you don’t distribute it, but this isn’t very helpful. c   Copyleft (also known as libre open access) goes further by allowing any derivative works so long as those derivatives are released under the same license. A legal embodiment is the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) license.

The standard economic story here is that open access is a public good suffering from a coordination failure. The editorial cost of publishing a paper is currently born by journals, and the journals can only recoup this cost through journal subscribers (mostly academic libraries) if the articles are locked down. Authors can pay a fee to publish in open access journals instead, but the cost to their research grant is significant (~$2,000). Ultimately, the cost for publishing always gets covered by whoever is footing the bill for research (usually the government), but in the open access case it’s directly part of the research grant whereas in the closed access case it’s through library subscriptions (which are paid for by universities, which use funds charged as overhead on research grants). To a crude first approximation, moving to open access makes everyone better offLots more can be said here, and there are viable counter arguments that mostly depend on how this approximation is too simplistic. Peter Woit has some good discussion of what can go wrong. d  , but individual authors see strong incentives to defect. (I certainly do…)

Open access is important for copyleft because the latter necessarily implies the former; any article published in a closed access journal cannot be released under a copyleft licence. (In particular, if you select the copyleft CC-BY-SA license when you upload to the arXiv, it appears that this nullifies your ability to publish in a closed access journalThe reasoning is that once an earlier version of the work is released under a copyleft, the journal cannot publish any subsequent version without releasing it for free. Note that the Physical Review journals allow author to make individual articles open access by paying the appropriate fee, but this is still an unpleasant $2k cost if you click the wrong button on the arXiv… e  .) Happily, there recently has been a strong push toward making academic articles open access by solving the coordination problem at the level of government fundingWhatever you may think of the fact that almost all basic research funding is controlled by national governments, there are good arguments that governments should ensure the research they do fund is freely available. And the Templeton Foundation controversially competes with the government in theoretical physics. f  . The idea is that the funding bodies simply require researchers to publish open access, typically with a one-year grace period (for now). Two notable US funders making this switch are the NIH (the single biggest research funder in the US) and, effective 2016, the NSF (the biggest funder of theoretical physics).

Importantly, once open access becomes the norm, there is no longer a financial barrier for authors to adopt a copyleft. Open access and copyleft both prevent journals from effectively charging subscription fees; copyleft just gives readers the additional ability to modify and redistribute an article, so long as they give proper attribution. Journals don’t much care either way.

It’s true that, even in an open access environment, some authors may be hesitant to have others pushing their words around. It will take time before people adjust to the idea that a modified paper should give credit to the original author without holding them responsible for the modifications. But I think this is very manageable compared to the disincentives of a $2k fee that an author faces for each and every publication.

Therefore, I claim that universally collaborative research — like a “Wikipedia for Science” or a forkable arXiv — will not be able to succeed until copyleft becomes the norm in academics, and a prerequisite for this is that open access becomes a norm. As a corollary, continuing the push for open access may be the best marginal use of resources to improve academic publishing even if you don’t think open access is particularly important on its own.

Added 2015-6-16: Tommaso Doringo also says that author reluctance to spend money on open access fees is a major contributor to the persistence of closed access journals, citing discussion at an academic publishing conference for journal editors.

[I thank Gordan Krnjaic and Godfrey Miller for discussion on this.]

Footnotes

(↵ returns to text)

  1. Edit 2016-4-22: I am embarrassed that I did not make it clear when this was initially posted that the Scientifica idealization is mostly a product of Godfrey Miller. Hopefully he didn’t notice…
  2. Nested comments are just comments that allow comment-specific replies, organized in a hierarchy; see here for a visual example.
  3. Technically, you are usually allowed to modify it for your personal use, as long as you don’t distribute it, but this isn’t very helpful.
  4. Lots more can be said here, and there are viable counter arguments that mostly depend on how this approximation is too simplistic. Peter Woit has some good discussion of what can go wrong.
  5. The reasoning is that once an earlier version of the work is released under a copyleft, the journal cannot publish any subsequent version without releasing it for free. Note that the Physical Review journals allow author to make individual articles open access by paying the appropriate fee, but this is still an unpleasant $2k cost if you click the wrong button on the arXiv…
  6. Whatever you may think of the fact that almost all basic research funding is controlled by national governments, there are good arguments that governments should ensure the research they do fund is freely available. And the Templeton Foundation controversially competes with the government in theoretical physics.
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2 Comments

  1. Mathias Körner

    It would be interesting to see what a lawyer with expertise in the area says about point d. In my opinion the author as the sole owner of the copyright can provide his work to different people under different licenses. So I’m not sure he/she is bound by the license unless someone else adds to the work so that multiple people share the copyright. He cannot distribute this document under a different license (by himself), but he still might with the original. Could it be that the Physical review journals have a policy not to publish works which are also shared in public?

    • Yea, I’m unsure about this. You might be right. However, I do know that Physical Review journals certainly doesn’t reject submissions that are simultaneously posted on the arXiv, where it is available in perpetuity. As I understand it, the key part for the journal is whether they can control the version that has their value added.

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