In the editor’s note in the print edition of ACM Communications, Moshe Vardi comments on the direction that scientific publishing is going.

Most businesses have sellers and buyers, but academic fields have authors, publishers, and libraries. The print media and the peer review process, has kept the quality from dropping, in his view. The last word of what gets published is no longer the say-so of editors in the field, or the peer review process, but the publisher. The publishers also have opened up the “vanity press” to authors. In turn, the “publish or perish” paradigm has led the authors to take advantage of the entry of “vanity press” ideas, albeit under different names.

The profit motive came up again as a negative in all this. Ho-hum. Again? Will we never learn?

One commenter, Andrew Adams, pointed out, the reader was left out of this discussion.

But we all know that real breakthroughs in science meet resistance as they are mistaken as low quality or quack ideas. But with the barrier to on-line publishing so low now that even a caveman can do it, those breakthroughs along with quack ideas have access to all the audience that can find it or that cares to read it.

But never fear. Bach and Beethoven still have an audience that appreciates that kind of quality and then there is easy-come easy-go entertainment for the masses.

The editor’s letter is titled “Predatory Scholarly Publishing“. He contrasts a “typical business”, that has sellers and buyers, with the “scholarly publishing business”, in which you have publishers and libraries as sellers and buyers, but also (1) authors, and (2) editors and reviewers. The editors and reviewers have been gatekeepers, who are paid or earn civic duty or scholarly prestige.

The thrust of the essay is to lament that vanity publishing and publishers themselves are making more decisions on what to publish. Anyone who wants to find an audience that is willing to read his stuff will find it.

There’s that “evil profit motive” again, bringing down quality. But it is also bringing down cookie-cutter conformity. Quality stuff is still “out there” along with bad stuff.

Take a paper that would gone into the trash before. The author pays his “registration fee” to get it published. Now, this paper has a better chance of getting published. Say, a good chance. But then, anybody who reads it or sees it has a chance to pick it apart.

The P versus NP episode was a turning point in my opinion in this whole discussion.  The “proof” was “published” via Internet, and it took a lightning-fast less than 24 hours to fall hard. So quality and lack of it get exposed more quickly than ever now. What’s the problem?

The problem seems to be that those who had the role of gatekeepers up to now, are afraid that the reader is now going to get lower-quality product. Their position as gatekeepers had a purpose, but now the terrain is shifting.

Quality will not lose its respect. Like one comment pointed out the readers and the audience is pretty much the same thing. The readership and the authorship that respects quality in its field will find each other.

In my opinion, this will widen the field for non-conformist advances, and new ideas are almost by definition non-conformist. The paradigm of how to publish science is shifting, and with it there may be a few, or many, other paradigm shifts.

Better to let knowledge grow like wildfire. Truly bad stuff will get hooted down. The theory that the moon is made of green cheese does not stand a chance.

And never fear, ACM publications, periodicals, will be kept in high esteem for its readership.

But why should people who pay for the end product, the consumer of the product, not have any say in the product? The world will go on.

In my opinion, it is a torture of history and common sense to see the profit motive as a net negative in the computing world anyway.

The profit motive has driven great advances in computing. The main reason computing academics gets funding is because it has proven itself as a fertile field of study that has yielded a great many fruits in terms of practical applications. The vacuum tube, the transistor, the microchip, programming languages, airliners, and all the rest paid for many of the research directly, and often indirectly. McDonnel-Douglass was one of the major sponsors of engineering studies at Washington University, for example.

What we do need in the United States and everywhere else is a better educated populace. The only way to get that is to have an independently educated populace. By independent I mean absolutely free of any political meddling, and any government funding is political meddling.

As you’re finding out with publishers in the academic field, the guy that pays the bills calls the shots. In Austrian economics, they express it as the concept that demand drives the market. This is the way it should be. Until now, the bottleneck of print resources created demand for those with a reputation for selecting what goes into it. Now it opens up.

For politically driven media like Time Magazine and the New York Times, this means that much of the readership that had the choices limited to them by a few dozen media companies, now have a much broader selection on-line, and the body politic is making good use of it. Editorial offerings that were not before available are now accessible over the Internet.

We the readers are making good use of it. Bypassing gatekeepers is coming in vogue.

Wait! Not bypassing gatekeepers, but the fact is, the readership is morphing into its own gatekeeper. New structures of respect and prestige are forming.

But we do need a more enlightened and educated body politic.  For that you need to move toward a demographic that recovers the intellectual acumen of the generation that had high school entrance exams from 1910 that would stump the Harvard grad of today and flunk more than a few MIT grads to boot.

With alternate publishing outlets, new sciences and technologies that have huge, very huge potential, getting more eager audience and more play.

For example, all the traditional publishing structure in all probability would have prevented Fleishman and Pons from publishing anything in 1989. They bypassed that and told the world about it instead, bypassing all the bottlenecks and informing the entire world, including physics labs and physics students everywhere that there was a new energy kid on the block worth checking out:

Not being able to censor the news, the gatekeepers of publications and research money who did not want to see their careers and their expensive educations devalued, used the same means to debunk it. Unsuccessfully it turns out.

MIT has a billionaire hot-fusion program going, funded largely by government money. When they announced that they had failed to get the results that Fleishman and Pons got, one of their own faculty bolted, became a whistle-blower, said they did get promising results, and went off and founded the “New Energy Foundation”, to fund further research into this promising technology.

It is now getting more attention around the world, in fact, and Arthur C. Clarke has added his name to those calling on the US president and institutions around the world to invest more into this new, clean, potentially very cheap and very abundant energy source.

And what traditional academic publishing gatekeeper would have been able to give the time of day to Luis Cruz, the Honduran teen that invented “Eyeboard”, an inexpensive eye-tracking device that will help people with disabilities greatly.

Command and control don’t work in economic domains, why should it work in science or academics?

Suppression of the first advocate of the germ theory of disease resulted in a great many unnecessary deaths from infectious diseases because the medical profession refused to believe that invisible little animals were getting people sick. It also drove them to punish him for telling them the truth (“You’re killing people!”) and to have him put away in an asylum.

that got its first advocate sentenced by the quality-minded establishment to an insane asylum, blaming him for their deafness to the lives they were killing with their dirty hands, calling him crazy for saying so.

“We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth”.