Neutral citation again

Here is a piece of advice about citation:

Rule 4: Cite transparently, not neutrally

Citing, even in accordance with content, requires context. This is especially important when it happens as part of the article’s argument. Not all citations are a part of an article’s argument. Citations to data, resources, materials, and established methods require less, if any, context. As part of the argument, however, the mere inclusion of a citation, even when in the right spot, does not convey the value of the reference and, accordingly, the rationale for including it. In a recent editorial, the Nature Genetics editors argued against so-called neutral citation. This citation practice, they argue, appears neutral or procedural yet lacks required displays of context of the cited source or rationale for including [11]. Rather, citations should mention assessments of value, worth, relevance, or significance in the context of whether findings support or oppose reported data or conclusions.

This flows from the realisation that citations are political, even though that term is rarely used in this context. Researchers can use them to accurately represent, inflate, or deflate contributions, based on (1) whether they are included and (2) whether their contributions are qualified. Context or rationale can be qualified by using the right verbs. The contribution of a specific reference can be inflated or deflated through the absence of or use of the wrong qualifying term (‘the authors suggest’ versus ‘the authors establish’; ‘this excellent study shows’ versus ‘this pilot study shows’). If intentional, it is a form of deception, rewriting the content of scientific canon. If unintentional, it is the result of sloppy writing. Ask yourself why you are citing prior work and which value you are attributing to it, and whether the answers to these questions are accessible to your readers.

When Nature Genetics had an editorial condemning neutral citation, I took it to be a demand that authors show that they’ve read and thought about the papers they cite.

This piece of advice seems to ask something different: that authors be honest about their opinions about a work they cite. That is a radical suggestion, because if people were, I believe readers would get offended. That is, if the paper wasn’t held back by offended peer reviewers before it reached any readers. Honestly, as a reviewer, I would probably complain if I saw a value-laden and vacuous statement like ‘this excellent study’ in front of a citation. It would seem to me an rude attempt to tell the reader what to think.

So how are we to cite a study? On the one hand, we can’t just drop the citation in a sentence, but are obliged to ‘mention assessments of value, worth, relevance or significance’. On the other hand, we must make sure that they are ‘qualified by using the right verbs’. And if citation is political, then whether a study ‘suggests’ or ‘establishes’ conclusions is also political.

Disclaimer: I don’t like the 10 simple rules format at all. I find that they belong on someone’s personal blog and not in a scientific journal, given that their evidence for their assertions usually amounts to nothing more than my own meandering experience … This one is an exception, because Bart Penders does research on how scientists collaborate and communicate (even if he cites no research in this particular part of the text).

Penders B (2018) Ten simple rules for responsible referencing. PLoS Computional Biology

The open access ‘Plan S’ is decisive action to do the wrong thing

Plan S (as Wikipedia puts it: ‘not to be confused with S-plan‘) is an plan by the European Research Council and other European research funders to promote open access publishing. They say that key idea is:

After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.

What Plan S is doing right, in my opinion:

  • Research funders have realised that they have weight they can throw around. They can force change on publishers by telling researchers what to and deciding what they will pay for and not pay for.
  • They emphasise copyright and strong licensing (i.e. cc:by) that give readers the rights to use and reproduce.
  • They want publishing costs to be covered by funders, and be capped to be somehow reasonable.

What Plan S is doing wrong, in my opinion, can be summarised by quoting their ninth principle:

The ‘hybrid’ model of publishing is not compliant with the above principles

First, let us talk terminology. ‘Gold’ open access is where the journal is exclusively open access. ‘Green’ is when the journal may not be open access normally, but allows you to put up an accessible copy of the paper somewhere else, for example your friendly institutional repository. These labels unhelpful. They aren’t natural mnemonics, and as you might expect, they are used inconsistently. More importantly, author-pays full open access is not some higher form of publishing, so I wouldn’t call it ‘gold’.

‘Hybrid’ publishing is when only some papers in a journal are open access. This would not be allowed under Plan S. This would prevent publishing in Science, Nature and Cell. Depending on your stance on publishing that may be upsetting or encouraging. Of course, it would also disqualify a set of society journals like Genetics, Heredity, and Evolution.

Why, one might ask? Is it important that open access publishing happens only in exclusively open access journals? I guess the idea is to prevent library-pays journals from getting paid twice by also charging authors for some papers.

I think that is confusing a means with an end. The goal should be to get the most accessible papers with the least amount of effort, and to push scientific publishing in a positive direction. I am not sure that monolithic author-pays publishers are all that much better than monolithic library-pays publishers, so why should we give them a particular advantage?

In my opinion, a better option would be along these lines: We should accept preprints as a form of cheap open access, make sure to format our preprints a bit nicer (I’ve sinned against this by uploading double-spaced manuscripts with the figures at the end), and pressure subscription journals to accept preprinting of the final text without delay. Maybe one could even get journals to accept the preprints to be distributed under permissive licenses. This may be a tall order, but maybe no less realistic than trying to dictate the size of the publishing fee.

We could have the best of both: scientific communities could keep publishing in those quality society journals that all of our colleagues read, and everyone would get free and convenient access to papers. The problem of unreasonable subscription fees will remain, and that needs other plans for joint library and university action. For those of us that have a bit of an iconoclastic streak, it would also leave the field open for new ideas in publishing, rather than prescribing certain journals with a particular business model.

I’m looking at a life unfold
Dreaming of the green and gold
Just like the ancient stone
Every sunrise I know
Those eyes you gave to me
That let me see
Where I come from
(Lianne La Havas)