Some (probably not original) thoughts about originality
A number of things have prompted me to be thinking about what makes a piece of writing “original” in a web based world where we might draft things in the open, get informal public peer review, where un-refereed conference posters can be published online, and pre-print servers of submitted versions of papers are increasingly widely used. I’m in the process of correcting an invited paper that derives mostly from a set of blog posts and had to revise another piece because it was too much like a blog post but what got me thinking most was a discussion on the PLoS ONE Academic Editors forum about the originality requirements for PLoS ONE.
In particular the question arose of papers that have been previously peer reviewed and published, but in journals that are not indexed or that very few people have access to. Many of us have one or two papers in journals that are essentially inaccessible, local society journals or just journals that were never online, and never widely enough distributed for anyone to find. I have a paper in Complex Systems (volume 17, issue 4 since you ask) that is not indexed in Pubmed, only available in a preprint archive and has effectively no citations. Probably because it isn’t in an index and no-one has ever found it. But it describes a nice piece of work that we went through hell to publish because we hoped someone might find it useful.
Now everyone agreed, and this is what the PLoS ONE submission policy says quite clearly, that such a paper cannot be submitted for publication. This is essentially a restatement of the Ingelfinger Rule. But being the contrary person I am I started wondering why. For a commercial publisher with a subscripton business model it is clear that you don’t want to take on content that you can’t exert a copyright over, but for a non-profit with a mission to bring science to wider audience does this really make sense? If the science is currently unaccessible and is of appropriate quality for a given journal and the authors are willing to pay the costs to bring it to a wider public, why is this not allowed?
The reason usually given is that if something is “already published” then we don’t need another version. But if something is effectively inaccessible is that not true. Are preprints, conference proceedings, even privately circulated copies, not “already published”. There is also still a strong sense that there needs to be a “version of record”, that there is a potential for confusion with different versions. There is a need for better practice in the citation of different versions of work but this is a problem we already have. Again a version in an obscure place is unlikely to cause confusion. Another reason is that refereeing is a scarce resource that needs to be protected. This points to our failure to publish and re-use referee’s reports within the current system, to actually realise the value that we (claim to) ascribe to them. But again, if the author is willing to pay for this, why should they not be allowed to?
However, in my view, at the core to the rejection of “republication” is an objection to the idea that people might manage to get double credit for a single publication. In a world where the numbers matter people do game the system to maximise the number of papers they have. Credit where credit’s due is a good principle and people feel, rightly, uneasy with people getting more credit for the same work published in the same form. I think there are three answers to this, one social, one technical, and one…well lets just call it heretical.
Firstly placing two versions of a manuscript on the same CV is simply bad practice. Physicists don’t list both the ArXiv and journal versions of papers on their publication lists. In most disciplines, where conference papers are not peer reviewed, they are listed separate to formally published peer reviewed papers in CVs. We have strong social norms around “double counting”. These differ from discipline to discipline as to whether work presented at conferences can be published as a journal paper, whether pre-prints are widely accepted, and how control needs to be exerted over media releases but while there may be differences over what constitutes “the same paper” there are storng social norms that you only publish the same thing once. These social norms are at the root of the objection to re-publication.
Secondly the technical identification of duplicate available versions, either deliberately by the authors to avoid potential confusion, or in an investigative roleto identify potential misconduct, is now trivial. A quick search can rapidly identify duplicate versions of papers. I note paranthetically that it would be even easier with a fully open access corpus but where there is either misconduct, or the potential for confusion, tools like Turnitin and Google will sort it out for you pretty quickly.
Finally though, for me the strongest answer to the concern over “double credit” is that this is a deep indication we have the whole issue backwards. Are we really more concerned about someone having an extra paper on their CV than we are about getting the science into the hands of as many people as possible? This seems to me a strong indication that we value the role of the paper as a virtual notch on the bedpost over its role in communicating results. We should never forget that STM publishing is a multibillion dollar industry supported primarily through public subsidy. There are cheaper ways to provide people with CV points if that is all we care about.
This is a place where the author (or funder) pays model really comes it in its own. If an author feels strongly enough that a paper will get to a wider audience in a new journal, if they feel strongly enough that it will benefit from that journal’s peer review process, and they are prepared to pay a fee for that publication, why should they be prevented from doing so? If that publication does bring that science to a wider audience, is not a public service publisher discharging their mission through that publication?
Now I’m not going to recommend this as a change in policy to PLoS. It’s far too radical and would probably raise more problems in terms of public relations than it would solve in terms of science communication. But I do want to question the motivations that lie at the bottom of this traditional prohibition. As I have said before and will probably say over and over (and over) again. We are spending public money here. We need to be clear about what it is we are buying, whether it is primarily for career measurement or communication, and whether we are getting the best possible value for money. If we don’t ask the question, then in my view we don’t deserve the funding.