vendredi 15 novembre 2013

The job ain't finished till the paperwork's done?

It's been a fairly quiet week in the cabinet, and all my birthday books have arrived including the latest (2nd) edition of the European Science Editors' Handbook. It's a unique compendium of scientific and publishing information, so I've been doing a little reading in between some admin tasks, and pondering its various chapters on taxonomy, a subject that I haven't considered per se for, ooh, nigh on thirty years. So, when Ross Mounce's tweet bounced into my feed earlier in the week, my mind was particularly prepared to dive into what may be the last storm before the final triumph of the web.
Ross was drawing attention to a 94-page article in ZooTaxa from a group of eminent taxonomists whose point of view basically seems to be that if it's not published on paper, then it doesn't exist, at least for the purposes of establishing precedence. Convention required, until the rules were amended in 2012, that at least five paper copies of any article be lodged in five separate reference libraries. Now, on first reflection this position seems somewhat dinosaur-ish, but Dubois et al's meticulously documented critique of the slippery nature of online publishing should give web triumphalists pause for thought.

As I understand them, Bubois et al's view is that an insistence on a paper publication forces all concerned to fix upon a canonical version of an article that exists and is publicly available for sale or by request at a certain date. Precedence is sacrèd in taxonomy because the winner gets to name the newly discovered lifeform, immortalizing a hero along the way, and the discoverer is then cited as the 'authority' responsible thereafter. With the prize of immortal memory at stake--not quite as good as having an SI unit named for you, but close--a legalistic rule book has developed over the years to ensure justice is done.

Dubois et al. are particularly scathing of electronic publishing practices which change articles without updating the publication date and reference information. Taking the long view—many 18th century works of taxonomy are apparently still in current usage—they criticise the electronic publishing community in general and BioMedCentral in particular, for playing fast and loose with traditions and systems that have accreted over literally centuries. As the linkrot rate, even in scholarly publishing, reportedly approaches 40% about five years after publication, the traditionalists certainly have a point, and everyone concerned with scientific communication would benefit from reflecting on Dubois et al's justified criticisms, and considering what may be done to address them.

Paradoxically of course open access is part of the solution—lots of copies keeps stuff safe, and all that, but there is still, in my view, a need to force all concerned into producing a canonical version of an article, and the moment when a file is fixed for the presses to roll would be a pretty good time for that. Then there needs to be some sort of digital service that provides assurances that we're dealing with files that have integrity. All the technical problems for this are already solved in the software world, but it will be a while yet before the necessary technical changes have fully permeated into non-technical scholarly areas. So I'm sure there'll be some space for boutique paper publishers for some time to come.

Update 1830h: I had to rush out to pick up the boy from school moments after completing the first draft of this blog at 1630h, so it seems a fitting homage to Prof Dubois to tweak it a bit now I've got a moment, but leave all the publishing metadata essentially unchanged. (!)
Update 17/11/2013 1310h: 1) My own response to Ross' tl;dr plea, after the briefest of flicks through Dubois et al's PDF, was admirably on target, though I say it myself: 2) Dubois et al's article really should have been better edited. A document of 94 pages begins to demand either a table of contents, an index, or preferably both, for sparing yourself this effort wastes everybody else's time. The unwieldy nature of the article undoubtèdly undermines its rhetorical effectiveness. ("Sorry for this long article, I didn't have time to write you a short one."--> But then, if you're ranting for the canon of the centuries, perhaps this is not an excuse you can honourably pull. 3) Also, if it was proofread by a native English speaker, s/he missed a few Franglicisms, deep down the page, none grave, but still...