Marcin Miłkowski, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences
In recent years, the importance of a sustainable public and open IT infrastructure for science and public debate has become increasingly clear. This urgency has been highlighted by recent events such as the Twitter crisis (now, “X”), and the lack of stable public funding for critical software repositories and open access publishing. The reliance on private companies like Elsevier, Springer Nature, or Microsoft, or influential entrepreneurs like Elon Musk to provide this infrastructure is not only problematic, but also unsustainable in the long run.
The Twitter Crisis: Lessons on Misinformation and Debate
In the Twitter crisis, it became evident that the platform was not equipped to handle the spread of misinformation and it led to real-world consequences. The crisis highlights the need for a sustainable IT infrastructure that is specifically designed for science and public debate. Such an infrastructure should prioritize transparency and accountability, and be free from commercial interests that could interfere with its mission.
Twitter has been the science outreach platform of choice for many researchers, but also the tool for discussing urgent scientific issues, such as the reproducibility crisis in psychology. Quite likely, the open science movement could have not gained the momentum it had, were not for this particular social media platform. Fortunately, the specifically vicious aspects of Twitter viral posting can be mitigated on the emerging alternative, bottom-up Mastodon platform, but it requires more public endorsement and funding in Europe to become also a useful tool for science outreach. At the same time, some features of Mastodon, like the limited ability to perform platform-wide search or quote posts, makes it more difficult to use for social media research.
The lack of public funding for critical software repositories like GitHub and open access publishing (not only publication repositories) is also a concern. With increasing reliance on such platforms for scientific research and collaboration, it is imperative that they are provided with stable funding to ensure their long-term sustainability.
Private Enterprises vs Public Good: The Profit Motive
Reliance on private companies to provide this infrastructure has many problems. First, private companies are driven by profit motives. The profit motive could potentially interfere with their ability to provide an infrastructure that prioritizes transparency, stability, and accountability. Their decisions may not align with the needs of the scientific community. For example, Elsevier, a major publisher of scientific journals, has been criticized for its high prices and restrictive access policies (Epstein, 2012; Schiermeier & Mega, 2017). In contrast, a public and open IT infrastructure would prioritize the needs of the scientific community, rather than commercial interests.
This issue is related to the failure of Plan S. Put forward by a group of European funding agencies, this is an ambitious plan to enforce open access publishing in Europe. But the plan backfired, leading to the even greater dominance of big commercial publishers, and threatens the existence of society publishers (Kowaltowski & Oliveira, 2019; McNutt, 2019). It did not keep public spending reasonable and it only increases the profit margins of private companies. Lacking stable public funding and infrastructure, European society and university publishers cannot stably compete by providing open access publications without exorbitant article processing charges. A large, publicly funded scientific platform, led by librarians of Europe, could make a huge difference.
A recent development indicates a possible shift in the situation. The European Commission has launched a new open-access journal, Open Research Europe, which offers waivers to all projects funded by Horizon 2020 or Horizon Europe. Nevertheless, article processing charges still exist, albeit not as exorbitant as in fully commercial venues, as the journal platform is run by F1000Research, with its innovative, fully transparent and open post-publication peer review process. A commendable aspect of the journal is that it vows never to apply for the impact factor, which is known to be essentially unrelated to research quality and is easily manipulated by publishers (Brembs et al. 2013). The journal has been only funded for four years, after F1000Research won the bid, which reflects the long-standing EU policies that attempt to link commercial enterprises with the public good.
While there is a lot one could appreciate about funding open access journals like these, yet another example of projectomania, in which stable funding is replaced with temporary projects whose future is uncertain. We need journal publishing stability, which is what only public libraries, funded indefinitely, could guarantee.
Moreover, private companies like Elsevier, Microsoft, or entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have the power to pull the plug on their services at any time, leaving the scientific community and public debate without a crucial infrastructure. This unpredictability can have serious consequences, especially in the case of scientific research, where a sudden loss of access to data and collaboration tools could set back progress. A public and open IT infrastructure would provide the stability and continuity necessary for sustained scientific research and public debate.
Conclusion: Prioritizing Science, Debate, and Sustainability
In conclusion, it is urgent to build a sustainable public and open IT infrastructure for science and public debate in Europe. Recent events have highlighted this urgency. The reliance on private companies to provide this infrastructure is problematic, and unsustainable in the long run. By building a public and open IT infrastructure, we can ensure that the needs of the scientific community and public debate are prioritized, and that progress is not impeded by commercial interests, the unpredictability of private companies, or the whims of a single entrepreneur.
Brembs, B., Button, K., & Munafò, M. (2013). Deep impact: Unintended consequences of journal rank. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291
Epstein, K. (2012). “Academic spring” sees widening boycott of Elsevier. BMJ, 344(feb27 2), e1469–e1469. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e1469
Kowaltowski, A. J., & Oliveira, M. F. (2019). Plan S: Unrealistic capped fee structure. Science, 363(6426), 461.1-461. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw5815
McNutt, M. (2019). “Plan S” falls short for society publishers—And for the researchers they serve. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(7), 2400–2403. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1900359116
Schiermeier, Q., & Mega, E. R. (2017). Scientists in Germany, Peru and Taiwan to lose access to Elsevier journals. Nature, 541(7635), 13–13. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.21223
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