The owners of science

The owners of science

By Viviana Martinovich

Who legitimizes science

"Science publishers make Murdoch look socialist," a Guardian article recently quipped. It is that many magazines depend on the industries: thus, the scientific parameters do not predominate but the economic interests. In Latin America, the abusive practices of publishers are not problematized: it is unknown, for example, that thousands of researchers worldwide - from MIT to Cambridge together with media such as The New York Times - signed a boycott against the Elsevier company. Instead, it is established that the only option to validate findings is to publish in "famous" journals such as Nature, says specialist Viviana Martinovich. How does scientific knowledge really circulate?

In Latin America, more than 17,000 scientific and technical journals are published, but only 750 managed to enter the international databases through which journals such as Nature or Science circulate, edited by the large publishing industry. If we were to make an analogy with the Oscars, we could say that there is a group of Latin American magazines that, by their own merit, year after year go through the so renowned red carpet, but do not belong to Warner, Fox, Universal or Paramount. Let us imagine for a moment where the attention of the international press would be concentrated, including that of special envoys from Latin American countries, on those who participate in the highest-grossing films on the planet or on those who are part of projects carried out outside the industry and, As if this were not enough, generated in "third world" countries?

In Argentina, certain areas of knowledge consider that the only option to validate their findings and enter into dialogue with international science is to access the red carpet but as Warner or Fox figures, that is, by publishing in journals such as Nature or Cell . And this argument is already so installed, that it is weighed by government officials, journalists, students, researchers and librarians, as an unquestionable truth. However, although their findings are considered valid and novel enough by some of the magazines of the great industry, and the authors pay between US $ 3,000 and US $ 5,000 as an article processing charge (APC) for editing and publication of their works, they will not receive the attention of the flashes, because they do not belong to the great industrial machinery. The note by Dr. Randy Schekman, Nobel Prize in Medicine, is highly recommended, in which he reveals the devastating effect that the practices of magazines such as Nature, Cell or Science have on science. It's not just about the glamor: the big business interests behind those flashes and microphones respond to the same machinery that needs feedback to keep running.

At the other end of the spectrum, other knowledge areas consider that international databases condition and limit what is published. As if magazines, just to cross the red carpet, could not publish studies that show, for example, the damages that agrochemicals produce or maintain a critical editorial line regarding harmful practices of the industries. And this is confusing the financing model with distribution. If the financing model of a magazine depends on the industrial sector, it is very likely that it will not publish certain studies, and, if it does, it is possible that they will swell the list of “retracted” articles. On the other hand, if the journal does not depend on the industries, it is more probable that the scientific parameters prevail over the economic interests. But the distribution responds to another logic.

For more than a century, the content published by scientific journals has been distributed through “abstract indexes”. What at first were printed catalogs or indexes, today are large databases with more than 60 million records. Although magazines do not pay to be distributed, a high percentage of the countries of the planet pay large sums of money so that researchers can access that content. Therefore, the business of databases is to achieve box office records, not to define the script of what they distribute. In fact, there are no people reading the content, but robots that read metadata and process it at high speed within complex information systems. That is why today, to walk the red carpet, it is not enough for a magazine to be scientifically consistent for humans: it needs its content to be able to be read by machines.

Is it possible to analyze the scientific publishing industry with parameters of the film industry? Many may consider it a heresy, under the assumption that we are talking about science and, therefore, we should abide by the rules of the game in the scientific field. However, we are not talking about science but about the monopoly of its distribution, in which companies such as Thomson Reuters participate, one of the largest concentrators and distributors of not only scientific but financial information worldwide, which in 2016 obtained revenues of 11,166 million of dollars; o RELX Group (formerly known as Reed Elsevier), which includes a series of associated brands such as Elsevier, Scopus, ScienceDirect, LexisNexis-Risk Solutions, BankersAccuity, among others, which reported a revenue volume in 2016 of 8,412 million euros. For the stock groups of these companies, science is part of a highly profitable business. Its objective would not be to improve the living conditions of humanity, nor the "progress" of science, but to increase its production and its annual profitability and, therefore, they should be analyzed within the productive logic of the industrial sector and not of the scientific field. As George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, ironically, "Scientific editorials make Murdoch look socialist."

But beyond the interests at stake, the publishing industry, unlike the film industry, must dispute the legitimacy of a symbolic capital such as "scientific quality" and, therefore, must hide any link with economic interests: it is necessary that profits are visualized as achievements of science and not as mere accumulation of capital, which requires a type of enunciation, an accompanying discursive construction.

As in Argentina and many other Latin American countries, abusive practices in the publishing industry are not a problematic issue, it is unknown, for example, that more than 16,000 researchers worldwide have publicly signed the boycot to the Elsevier company initiated by a group of mathematicians from Cambridge, MIT, Chicago, California, Paris 7, among many other universities, and that newspapers such as The Guardian, El País, Le Monde, The Washington Post, The New York Times, are usually echo very critical positions with respect to the great scientific publishing industry. It is as if many researchers in Latin America continue to applaud a work that is no longer on the bill: they continue to consider publishing in Elsevier magazines to be the greatest achievement they can aspire to, even though their abusive practices have been denounced by the international academic community itself.

But the commodification of science is not the only possible model. In the last years of the 20th century an international movement arises that proposes new ways of understanding scientific communication; questions the concept of "property" of science and, therefore, its form of commercialization; understands that knowledge financed with public resources must be available to the society that finances the research. This places inequality in access to scientific information at the center of the discussion, in clear opposition to the closed distribution model consolidated by the industrialized sector. Thus was born the “open access” movement, which installs political discussion within a scientific field that presents itself as a neutral scenario, stripped of interests and power conflicts. In this sense, it is interesting to recover Chantal Mouffe, who argues that the denial of these interests and of the conflict inherent in social relations places politics on neutral ground in which the dominant hegemony is not questioned.

The principles of open access have the potential to restore this conflict, to reverse the asymmetries, expand the limits and bet on another “geography of science” as mentioned by Jean Claude Guédon. But this movement understood that to radically change the scenario, it was not only a matter of confronting economic power from the discursive: it was necessary to develop integrated systems, electronic distribution protocols, open source programs, licenses for the use of content, In other words, a whole scaffolding that would allow the non-industrialized sector to improve its management, publication and content distribution standards to gain greater visibility. Hand in hand with free software culture, Creative Commons licenses and the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) promoted by Richard Stallman, Jimmy Wales, Aaron Swartz, Lawrence Lessig, John Willinsky, Brian Owen, Juan Pablo Alperin among many others, The conditions were created for Latin American scientific journals to have access to international technological standards.

But the reality is that, although we are facing a privileged situation by having the possibility of accessing powerful technological resources, paradoxically, the capacity for appropriation of the available technology is very low, since it requires the learning of new languages: no longer It is only necessary to edit the text that humans read, but it is also necessary to understand and edit the language intended for machines, in charge of automating various processes, including the distribution of scientific content. Although this new interlocutor allows the integration of content to global information systems, due to its own complexity, it again confronts us with a potential increase in asymmetries, and increases the gap between industrialized journals and those that are published outside of the industry. And this gap is not just technological.

Argentine cinema managed to grow and consolidate thanks to the existence of a development fund that today is in danger. In the case of the scientific publishing sector, the state funding to pay for publication costs goes, for the most part, to the large international publishing industry. It is as if the Argentine State were dedicated to financing Hollywood cinema, instead of promoting the local industry, which would be absurd, but it is what is happening today in the scientific publishing field. And this is also due to the low investment in research and development, both state and private, which further underfunds the final stage of the process of publication and distribution of results and does not allow the emergence of a specialized publishing sector.

The editorial processes in electronic format have changed radically in the last five years. The integration of previously disjointed systems led to more complex standards that increased editing costs. To edit journals that respond to the needs of all areas of knowledge, it is necessary to invest in innovative production schemes, in new ways of displaying and distributing content, for which the integration of computer-editorial knowledge is essential.

However, we understand that to think critically about the scientific publishing field, we cannot assume that only with the incorporation of technological advances or with the enactment of laws we will be able to modify culturally installed practices. Science is a human practice and, therefore, a social one, whose agenda must be thought in those terms. That is why we propose the notion of “contextualized editorial practice” to discuss in political terms the ways to create and socialize scientific knowledge and to stop reproducing statements that are installed and repeated without question. As Oswald Ducrot mentions: “our words are largely the simple reproduction of speeches already heard or read”. But to reproduce speeches uncritically is to empty our story of meaning.

The reality is that the world does not need more industrialized scientific journals, but rather alternative, more equitable, egalitarian and collaborative production models that revalue our ways of doing science. And to integrate these contents into the world, we need to implement new technological standards that enhance the distribution and entry into international systems for evaluating academic production.

The question that we should try to answer is how to enter into dialogue with international science without losing identity? The world needs new spaces to be opened for other voices to dialogue and not to continue concentrating a single story that reproduces the interests of highly concentrated sectors.
Scientific journals, like any other means of communication, can respond to more egalitarian, contextualized, plural and inclusive models of producing, publishing and distributing scientific knowledge.

Illustration Julieta De Marziani

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