Thoughts on disrupting the triple payer system

Academic publishing is sometimes referred as a triple payer system because the publisher is paid three times over the course of the product life cycle. First by the governments who foot the majority of operating costs for a research group, then by the institutions who pay the publisher for rights to submit a manuscript, and then a third time by the readers who are paying for the work that their peers created on (mostly) the government’s dime. I believe that academics tolerate this because it has produced clear quantitative metrics by which we can judge an individual work (i.e. citations), publishing venues (i.e. impact factor), and researchers (i.e. h-index).

The biggest issue with this is that I don’t think good, novel research benefits from constantly being measured through its popularity. A citation-centric approach to research can often lead to lots of small incremental work and groupthink that is driven by those who have managed to become the loudest voices in the room. Furthermore, it reinforces an emphasis on only publishing experiments that result in some form of objective success.

I should clarify, this system is equal parts bad behavior from publishers as it is just their desire to maximize profit. It’s quite common for people to self-organize into hierarchies and defer to authority or popularity as a metric because it usually works pretty well.

But what if we could make everything but the peer review part of academic publishing completely automated?

I think I want to see if I can work on this problem over the next couple years. I’d like to see a ground-up, technology-driven approach to academic publishing whose objective is to maximize accessibility and quality, in that order.

Here is my current analysis of steps in the academic publishing process, and what I think of them:

I’ve mentioned small projects here and there that are already well on their way to making the landscape of academic publishing a better place, but I’d like to reiterate that the technology is there to automate most of the process already. It’s largely a social problem. If I came out with an open-access bioinformatics journal tomorrow, who would want to publish in it? Who wants to abandon a business model where the product’s costs are mostly covered by the users instead of the company? Hopefully, by demonstrating a better solution to each sub-problem (and just enough PR), I’ll make something other people use.

If you’d like to see what I’ve made so far, I’ve set up some code here and talked about the process of yelling that code into existence here.