Three Wishes for the Future

If I could change a few things about the scholarly Internet, these might be on the list

Three Wishes for the Future

The information world seems to be evolving more rapidly all of a sudden, and in ways that are making practices and ideas that once seemed novel look haggard, while some tried-and-true approaches are regaining relevance and being powered by better technological and institutional support.

The regulatory vigor of the Biden Administration is already yielding effects, mostly in what is not happening with M&A in the tech space, as Big Tech firms know they’d have an uphill battle. Public sentiment has shifted against Silicon Valley ideas, as well, making these exquisitely vain tech leaders squeamish. Even their moments of supposed glory — going to space, for instance — are being met with feelings ranging from resentment to indifference to ridicule.

But change is slow and gradual — nothing like the kind of change you might make with three wishes to utilize as you see fit. In that spirit, here are a few wishes I might make for the scholarly information system, if the opportunity arose.

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1 Rein in the Citation Industrial Complex

Citations used to accrue relatively locally and gradually, occurring within communities and slowly emerging over time to gently elevate some content sources above others to indicate some degree of reliability and prominence. Now, with DOIs and major interlinking citation networks generating data and pointers at breathtaking speed and scale, citation benefits can accrue rapidly and illegitimately, as there are few controls. In fact, it appears we have become a partner in creating as many citations as possible, even to materials that we customarily would have dismissed because they are too minor or have not passed the most basic levels of review.

As a result, citation cartels have emerged multiple times — driving up citations quickly can have short-term benefits. Preprint citations have muddied the waters around where the boundaries of the peer-reviewed literature begin and end, and what value peer-review even has to offer the busy author. Citation lists are growing, as author lists bring in more vanity citations. This emerging “citation industrial complex” feels at times like a system that could spin out of control. There are tools emerging — like eXtyles and Edifix (along with Scite, which I advise) — that can help head-off citations to retracted works and improve the fetch of citation searches by offering qualitative filters or flagging citations to predatory journals.

I would wish that citation lists would be examined and pared back, perhaps with bibliographic limits akin to word count limits on papers. I would also suggest that a meta-citation package exist in some fields — a cluster of citations so commonly used that you could cite the basket instead of each individual article, shortening lists by taking perfunctory, “table stakes” citations out of papers. I might also wish that citations only accrue to papers published in non-predatory and fully reviewed journals.

2 Rethink the Cost:Benefit of “Open”

Throwing “open” in front of anything has become stylish and politically bulletproof — but it needs to be re-examined. While some have proffered assumptions of social and research gains under the auspices of “open,” life expectancy in the US has declined for the first time in decades, anti-vaccination efforts have dragged us back perilously close to masking and social distancing mandates, global warming has gone largely unaddressed and continues to advance on us, and anti-science attitudes have permeated some of the highest political offices in the world. Worse, we’ve become party to the delegitimization of science through our embrace of preprinting and our inability to shut down predators.

If these are the benefits of “open,” close it down.

A lack of authority in the sciences is a direct consequence of the flattening of the information landscape — anyone can now enter the literature with bad information, deliberately deceptive information, or simply sloppy information. Predatory publishers have hurt the reputation of publishers overall thanks to the incentives of Gold OA “cash on the barrelhead” publishing.

Meanwhile, journalism, newsletters, creative arts, and commerce in general are thriving using the subscription model, because there is a trust relationship at work, and not an exploitation of time or attention. There is no “just another business model,” and more and more evidence is accruing that draining science of its priority system, authority system, and trusted intermediaries is having deleterious effects on society.

I wish for a system that is stringent and fair, inclusive and rigorous, and concerned with quality and speed, while being willing to draw boundaries and set high standards for information distribution.

3 Create Better, Less Annoying Technology

Our technology needs an upgrade. Many a cell phone call is a sputtering mess because the phones are not full duplex, but rather radios switching between sending and receiving quickly, but still interrupting the flow. Browser compatibility remains elusive, even 25+ years after Mosaic debuted. Transitions from wi-fi to cellular are kludgy, as illustrated every time I drive away from my house. Security is a nightmare, and VPNs are cold comfort. Auto-correct is often laughable and more often annoying, while auto-suggest is just insulting. Batteries die too quickly, and have too few charge cycles. Computers are too slow too often, even while we feel at times they might be spying on us. Streaming platforms have made houses a pastiche of devices with different capabilities and profiles. Software upgrades take us offline for 30-60 minutes many times.

Some things work great — the cameras and mics in smartphones are truly wonderful — but I wish we could eliminate the compromises that have led to a frustrating, unsafe, exploitable, and exploitative technology landscape.

Unfortunately, I have no way to make these wishes come true, except working on making things better through optimistic criticism — the hope that critiques here and elsewhere will cause people of good will to address problems and reconsider choices to improve the scholarly information system.

If only we could agree what “improvement” entails.

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