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Interview:
Markus Meister

Markus Meister is Harvard's Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology. An advocate for free online access to scientific journals, Meister is known for his clear, compelling, and often witty analysis of issues in scholarly communication. As a follow-up to his February 28 presentation to a group of 40 Harvard librarians, Library Notes interviewed Professor Meister on April 25.

LN
In our February 28 gathering, we began by looking at some troubling numbers. Between 1985 and 2000, Harvard increased its spending on serials by 162%, but the total number of serials acquired in the same period of time increased by just 7%. In the specific case of Countway Library of Medicine, serials costs increased by 227% while the number of serials acquired actually decreased by 27%. What's going on?

MM
I'm not sure what the origins of the cost increases are, although Mary Case [director of the Office of Scholarly Communication for the Association of Research Libraries and a co-presenter with Meister on February 28], seemed to document quite well that the profit margins are enormous in that business. University libraries are being asked to pay whatever they can pay without regard to what it costs to produce a journal.

LN
To what extent do these journals facilitate scholarly communication?

MM
It varies. With many journals, the lag time between submission of an article and its appearance in print is so large that one can't reasonably call the process communication—or we certainly wouldn't call any other medium with a delay of nine months communication. It's really a process of archiving rather than communicating.

Scientists of course have other means of communication—talking to each other at conferences, for example. Generally, when an important paper comes out, I've seen the result six months earlier at a conference or a seminar or through private communications. So the final value of these journals in communicating [science] is relatively small. And that value probably has actually decreased because our expectations for how rapidly things should happen have changed in the past ten or twenty years. Now, communication can be instantaneous by clicking a button and sending someone a PDF file. The delays involved in that traditional print and online publication are just not compatible with communication anymore. That's how I see it.

LN
Are you saying that despite the increased costs to the libraries and the enormous profits to the publishers, scholarly journals are not doing their jobs?

MM
They're doing some job or other, but it's not necessarily the communication of results. They serve an archival purpose. It's of course wonderful to have the information that was presented in a 45-minute lecture eternally archived in a form that you can access repeatedly or look at in more leisure and detail. There's certainly a need for doing that.

I think the most important function that keeps us reliant on commercial publishers is that of validating work. Individual work is often evaluated by the perceived quality of the journal in which it is published. Often, review committees, when asked to make decisions on appointments or promotions, will look at the journal titles on a candidate's CV in lieu of reading the papers themselves. That, in my view, is the biggest form of dependency that we have as academics on these professional publishers—especially the elite journals like Science, Nature, Cell—in my field—and Neuron. We see them as marks of excellence, as filters for excellence.

LN
It's the imprimatur that counts.

MM
Yes. It's a sad thing to say, but we have in a way out-sourced the process of evaluating our colleagues to these elite journals.

LN
What effect does this have on research?

MM
Certain fields of research become trendy and fashionable over others. You know—nanotubes made out of carbon are this fantastically interesting topic of research and everyone should be reading about them. And so this becomes a fashionable field of science and appointments are made based on that. It can change the shape of a department.

LN
You've been called an advocate for free, online, scientific journals. Is that accurate?

MM
I haven't spent any amount of time advocating for them, except occasionally talking to people about this. But it seems to me that, based on the long history of the Los Alamos E-print Archive, the efforts of the Public Library of Science, and associated attempts at electronic publication, we have all the technological means in place to rapidly and efficiently communicate with each other.

LN
Without expensive print journals?

MM
Right, without expensive print journals. Or expensive online journals. I think many of the current journals recognize that publication will ultimately be online exclusively. At least the editors I've talked to are involved in processes that would ultimately eliminate paper from the publication. That's not so much the issue. I mean it is a bit archaic to print a lot of these things out on paper and ship them around the country in trucks.

LN
What's your vision for a free, online scientific publication?

MM
One model that was talked about at [the February] meeting was as follows: everybody publishes whatever they want by depositing an article on the web and making it available to everyone. There's no review prior to depositing the material in the archives. The review begins after the material is available and is now open to everyone for commentary. And the commentary gets linked to the material in a way that is easily tracked and followed. So every piece of work, every article becomes the beginning of an online discussion. The important thing would be to organize the discussion in a way that it can be searched and accessed easily. You could ask, "I wonder what papers Charles Stevens has found interesting in the last month?" And he may find them interesting for positive or negative reasons, but it would be interesting for me to see what he has commented on in the last month. In this way, the whole process of validation could become much richer.

We're already doing this now, in a way, when we go to conferences or when we scan the tables of contents of print journals. But it would be so much more efficient if we could use Google or an equivalent search engine to lead us to all the articles that someone has found interesting in the past month. So this is just an example, a bit of a fantasy, in part to counter some of the claims of commercial publishers and editors, mainly that the whole process of editing and reviewing adds so much value to the manuscripts that come in.

One great benefit would be to the reviewers. As it stands now, every publication gets reviewed—most of the time—by two peer reviewers. They receive a manuscript for comment and they remain anonymous. Their comments are relayed back to the editor, who sends them back to the author. Based on those comments, the editor recommends that the manuscript be revised or perhaps rejected outright.

But the important point is that these reviewers remain anonymous in this whole process. Their commentary never appears and they never get credit for it. But it's this commentary that can substantially change the nature of a publication; it can make corrections, point to additional experiments that should be done, or point out different interpretations that ultimately end up in the final version of the manuscript.

Currently the reviewers get no credit for this work. If instead we published free-for-all and added commentary to the online publication, people who think hard about a manuscript and find flaws or find additional interpretations or change the outcome of data analysis, will get their names attached to that work and they would be properly credited. The commentary could be the object of citation as much as the original manuscript. I think this would be a more honest process, in which people actually get credit for the work that they do. It would be clear who was responsible for which contribution. And all would be eminently searchable.

LN
Your vision certainly underscores the static nature of print journals. The term "scholarly communications" begins to resonate differently.

MM
Exactly. I find that the web and electronic publishing have changed my way of interacting with written work to the point where I feel hampered when I hold a journal in my hands. I can't quickly hit "command-F" to find the next instance of a keyword and I can't jump to the reference from a citation. The technology is still evolving but I'm already so plugged into the electronic publications that it becomes tedious to deal with print.

LN
What's the role of the library community in this issue?

MM
The most valuable thing that can be done right away would be to provide some education for the faculty about the problems you're struggling with—which as I understand it are created largely by budgetary constraints and, on the other end, the outrageous prices of commercial publications. Judging from my own experience and that of colleagues nearby, we're generally quite uninformed about the economics of the library and about the kinds of university planning going on there. We only find out about the library when we can't see the journal on the shelf anymore because it got moved to the Depository.

As we discussed at [the February] meeting, a possible form of such education would be to send a representative to a faculty meeting or to various department meetings. Just ask for 30 minutes on the agenda and give a very brief presentation followed by questions. This is the kind of thing that faculty would enjoy on the whole and it could start some conversations.

LN
You used a terrific PowerPoint presentation in February. Would you be willing to make that available to our readers online?

MM
Yes. It's very brief.

LN
Thank you. I'm sure everyone will appreciate it.

Link to Professor Meister's PowerPoint presentation from http://hul.harvard.edu/publications/library_notes/1307/meister.ppt.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.