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I don’t normally weigh in on scholcomm discussions, as that isn’t really my area. However, reading Aaron Tay’s interesting blog post “Can posting a preprint be morally wrong?” got me thinking. The issue Tay is investigating is the bioRxiv preprint wall of shame and hinges on questions of what constitutes a preprint, what the purpose of a preprint is, and when is the ethically appropriate point to deposit a preprint (i.e. make it publicly available). None of these questions are settled and they are still points of contention. It seems to me, however, that there are two points which I don’t see discussed in the literature. The first is the question of (private) property, and the second is an epistemological question around texts and truth.

These two notions tend to get confused: bioRxiv’s policy of allowing preprints only of articles that haven’t yet been accepted to a journal can be seen as an assurance of quality (peer-review as truth-procedure) but also a protection of a journal’s IP (publishers are always talking about the value they add to an edited, published version of an article or monograph). So by increasing the temporal distance as well as the material qualities between the preprint and the published version, a publisher decreases the competition between manifestations of the same work (to use the vocabulary of FRBR).

There are disciplinary differences at play here. In the humanities, articles are texts whose form is integral to the value of the content; they are rhetorical in a way that scientific articles are not. Peer review of humanities articles tend to focus on argumentation, textual coherence, communication/communicability, etc. Preprints are less common in the humanities precisely because the “final form” of the text is integral to the communication of the argument. In the sciences, in principle, the content of the article is distinct from the form that it’s in (of course any humanities or social sciences scholar would take issue with this claim). Peer-review takes account of knowledge claims, methodologies, reproducibility, etc. In principle, peer review of scientific articles acts as a mechanism to ensure methodological guarantees of validity. A preprint exists on one side of this mechanism, marked by a kind of caveat emptor. It makes sense, then, for scientists to expect the provisional knowledge claim of their article to be replaced (epistemologically) by the peer-reviewed version when that comes to exist. The peer-reviewed version supersedes the preprint in a way that makes little sense for humanities articles (where revisions tend to be thought of as drafts or refinements of argument and language). But this idea of supersession in terms of knowledge claims ignores the question of property (as indeed, it should): to a scientists, the knowledge produced by their research ought to be independent of considerations of property; peer-review is a mechanism of externally validating a knowledge claim, and is (in principle) independent of the editorial work done by a journal.

For journals, however, peer-review is a step in the editorial workflow; it is a way to add value to a commodity, hence the requirement from their perspective a) to distinguish between preprints and published version b) quash competition between preprints and published versions (i.e. through policies preventing accepted manuscripts from being deposited as preprints) and c) through selective manipulation of open-access mechanisms such as Creative Commons licensing (as the recent Elsevier discussion illustrates - see the ALA Scholcomm listserv archive for details).

This is all a good example of how capitalism coopts non-capitalist procedures and values (e.g. peer-review as knowledge validation) for private profit. It relies on the multivalent aspects of peer-review: it can function as an epistemological mechanism (for scientists) and as an editorial, value-adding workflow component (for publishers). In this way, scientists submit to peer-review for their own disciplinary and methodological reasons, but thereby end up contributing to an ecosystem of private property and profit.

This all becomes clear when we consider the vilification of postprint deposit (again, relating back to the Elsevier CC “loophole”). For instance, when Jordan Anaya writes that “the fact that you can post a bunch of postprints to bioRxiv, then list them on your resume as evidence for your dedication to open science is disgusting”, he is arguing for the disinterested promotion of open science (i.e. with peer review as methodological validator); but by decrying the open-deposit of postprints, Anaya is supporting bioRxiv’s property rights in the articles it publishes. The insidiousness of capitalism is laid bare when Anaya argues that “our goal wasn’t to publish a paper, it was to share our results and code, which is what open science is supposed to be” at the same time as he is supporting bioRxiv’s property claims to accepted manuscripts.

I don’t know if there is something like an unaffiliated peer-review network in the works; this would be the peer-review equivalent of the open knowledge base discovery and e-resources librarians are waiting for, a way of taking methodological mechanisms out of the hands of vendors, separating an infrastructure from its matrix of private property and profit. Until then, I think, the ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions present within the scholcomm world are not only going to remain, but are likely to get worse as new forms of competition (i.e. SciHub) challenge the processes and profits of corporations; such is the way capitalism is designed to work, after all.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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