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Many academics and non-academics as well have acknowledged that academic publishing is at a turning point. As a part of this recognition, major universities and their libraries are cancelling subscriptions to access the papers of major publishers. The water of discontent is boiling close to the edge of the pot. Initiatives as Plan S, or the many petitions to create a grass roots movement and force for a change, are the first of the mushrooms popping out of the ground as precursors of an approaching flooding. Here is an eagle-eye perspective on how a global shift can happen in a sustainable way – that the system is best geared to endure the test of time and human nature.
Take an example of democracy. In many ways it has improved our lives to a previously unseen degree in the recorded history of mankind. In many ways, it has gone astray developing mutations and deviations that point out the weaknesses of the system. Popular vote and the political party system are the tools in the hands of ‘intelligent villains’, the part of the political spectrum that one way or another uses democracy to benefit themselves and the people loyal to them. An extreme example would be a closed circle of politicians directly tied to corporate giants funding their campaigns and rallies as practiced in the United States, where every citizen has the right to vote, yet, regardless of who gets elected, the corporations never lose because of the strings attached to many important places firmly in their grasp.
To minimize the possibility of waves of intelligent villains to divert the course of a ship, be it democratic state or scientific publishing, decentralization of power is the key element and no, I do not mean blockchain. Instead of the top-down approach to governance or science evaluation, bottom-up is the most corruption-proof way to do things. You might be scratching your head at this point, so to finish the thought, bear with me and let’s have a look at how countries and publishing can be decentralized.
The basic building unit of a country should be a small town, say two thousand people, who elect a legal representative for a limited period with re-election possibility. The representative in collusion with inhabitants, takes care of the economic planning and law proposals on local, district, or state scale and higher legislative bodies.
A town is made of five adjacent small towns and its board is made of four small town representatives. The town board being the smallest unit of local decentralized government passes local laws and decrees in town meetings. The small-town representatives can still hold meetings with their constituents to talk about local matters but the official decisions on small town affairs are made by the town board.
A province is made of five towns and province council has 25 members from the five towns. A set of province offices oversees and administers the delivery of local services and town development projects. The province council appoints a province administrator who is at the head of the province offices. Besides their own towns and small towns, the council members make sure the administration on the level of town is run efficiently and on time. Province council also selects a correspondent from the 25 members reporting to the office of a mayor at county level.
A county is made of five provinces and is an entity where taxes for local services are assessed and collected through a set of departments identical to the ones on state level. County administration is managed by a mayor and a local parliament of 125 small-town level representatives. The small-town representatives thus have four positions – in small-town council, town council, province council, and province parliament. In the parliament meetings they can discuss the affairs of their constituents with mayor and enact county laws. Mayor, often meeting with province correspondents, is responsible for proper functioning of province offices – making sure that services are delivered properly and in a timely manner. He annually forms and delivers detailed reports containing state, requests, and budget needs of the development in small towns. The reports are combined into a province-level budget plan. Mayor also takes care of tax collection in a province and all tax demands as well as tax reports of citizens which are submitted to province court to discourage corruption. All revenue reports, proofs of tax reports must be transferred to the high state court. The money will then be passed to federal government before being redistributed to states. Law proposals, compliant and certified by the supreme court of the state, are submitted in the parliament by small-town representatives who discussed them with their constituents, or by the mayor.
A district made of five, ten, or twenty provinces reflecting the overall number of citizens. There is no district government, but there are district offices in the capitals acting as local proxies of state ministries. These offices help coordinate the tax collection, plan the yearly budget, and development plans for provinces as they submit their plans for review to the state parliament.
Five districts make a state, overlooked by the state parliament composed of county mayors. The parliament gathers the budget and development requests from the counties and makes a comprehensive plan of their execution, or makes adjustments based on the priorities of each county. The parliament also has the power to produce legislation or accept legislative proposals from the county parliaments to be effective on a state-wide level. A chairman of the parliament (member of parliament), secretly elected by the parliament members is at the head of the budget and legislative process. Each state has pertinent departments of agriculture, health, education, etc. A governor appointed by the parliament oversees the executive part of the government.
At the highest level, all states fall under a single federal government that is concerned mainly with federal laws and outward pointed activities such as trade, national defense, energy, economic policy, immigration and so on. The number of representatives each state has in the federal government is proportional to the size of the country. All the budget plans of the federal government should be public giving the citizens of a country essential means to be able to hold their representatives and government employees accountable.
Within this government structure are many representative positions tied to popular or parliamentary voting system to distribute the decisive power amongst as many constituents as possible. At the same time, the structure and feedback loops of government are set so that they enable as little corruption as possible.
Applying these ideas to the world of academic publishing, the bottom line of the whole system is power distribution, creation of feedback loops, and layering (depending on the total amount of people involved). Creation of structures leaning towards clusterization and merging of structures into ever bigger organizations, in our case publishers, inevitably leads to corruption and sequential deterioration of the publishing system. Eventually, the facilitators of a free exchange become the dictators of tomorrow if left unchecked or if the system does not adjust to unexpected situations.
However, it is a lot easier to change the publication venue than it is to change a government. With every single publication, each postdoc, graduate student, professor, or associate professor adds a drop of water into the sea of journals covered by the giants of the publishing world. That is, until they don’t… The closed life cycle of obtaining funding based on where you publish can be broken, step by step, drop after drop. Open dialogue within your university structures about the growing obsolescence of the legacy publishing systems sprouting mafia-like practices and corruption is a good start. European research councils’ Plan S is an interesting set of initiatives set in the right course and hopefully the bold statements will come to fruition, but still, every single decision about a paper to be published is an important one.