Academic Publishing, Trends in Publishing

Finding the truth: Fake News and Academic Publishing

“Fake News” was the “word of the year” in 2017 (according to Collins Dictionaries).  It was a buzz-phrase that sprang up the information sector in 2016, when the US presidential election acted as a catalyst.  Its importance is increasing in a world where the extent of democracy and true freedom of speech varies hugely across the globe. The Collins definition says that it is “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. While this phenomenon has existed since the earliest broadsheets were published, it has had a much bigger impact on the psychology of today’s society than those of the past. Now Social Media is a major source of information for many, Fake News can be disseminated and spread much more quickly and widely; moreover, today’s Social Media consumer tends to be less and less worried about the sources and accuracy of the “information” s/he reads. Paradoxically, those who read news no longer trust the media – a recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report said that 49% of readers don’t trust the news sources they use, even though they have chosen these sources themselves! – but this seems to make no difference to their popularity.

You may feel that popular journalism has always been a shade scurrilous, but ask how may affect Academic Publishing. In 2016, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published an infographic on How to spot fake news; a closer look reveals that all eight fact-checking points are very relevant to Academic Publishing.

Fake News presents some fundamental challenges to Academic Publishing, an industry that relies on accuracy and integrity of information as the central justification for its existence. Academic Publishing needs to be robust, transparent and meticulously well-researched, because it drives innovation, public policy, and the entire academic discourse. However, Fake News has a big impact on the sector and the opinions held within academia, since misinterpretations of research results can quickly be spread as “facts”. One very prominent example of this was the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, New York in April this year which caused a local public health emergency, because it had been preceded by widespread misinformation about a (non-existing) link of childhood vaccination to autism, with the result that fewer children had been vaccinated. This “information” was based on a study which was already been proved a fake, withdrawn and the author sanctioned, but was still being spread widely on Social Media.

Again, this is  not new – tabloid newspapers have long based their business models on selling biased research data or exaggerated interpretations to the public – but the power of rapid dissemination and concomitant general lack of interest in sources exhibited by the public at large has allowed Fake News to spread more rapidly, even within academic circles. Publishing is the central route to academic preferment.  Unfortunately, therefore, Academic Publishing sometimes lends itself to fraud practised for unscrupulous personal gain.

The world of Academic Publishing relies heavily on Peer Review as its main mechanism of preventing Fake News; there have been frequent examples of publishers having to retract journal articles because of fraudulent peer reviews, as an examination of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific integrity, can demonstrate.

In response to such malpractice, fact-checking sites like snopes.com and factcheck.org have been established, to help readers to verify the integrity of academic content. Hypothes.is is a fact-checking site dedicated to Academic Publishing which uses annotations in a very effective way and also allows plugs into blogs and news sites.

The switch to Open Science provides another opportunity to prevent Fake News from contaminating Academic Publishing, because the whole OS publication process is open and transparent, meaning that fraud can be detected at an earlier stage.

There is a demonstrable need not only to educate students, but also the wider public, in information literacy and critical thinking. Websites like NimblyWise are attempting this, but take-up is not wide-spread and their reach to the wider public is limited.

Academic Publishing is therefore not immune from Fake News.  Society’s trust in published work without questioning its authenticity holds far-reaching implications. Clearly there is an urgent need for an improved system that can de-incentivise (and possibly prevent) the production of Fake News, provide education in information literacy; and offer a trusted forum to enable Scientists and Academic Publishers to stay in an active dialogue with the public.

Digital Publishing, London Book Fair, Trends in Publishing

Vibes from the London Book Fair 2019

This year’s London Book Fair occurred earlier in the year than usual and was once again held at Olympia – an old favourite for those of us who remember Olympia as the venue for pre-Earl’s Court LBFs. Members of Gold Leaf attended on Tuesday and Thursday.

We were very impressed by the overall attendance, especially on Tuesday: there was a real buzz to the fair, with lots of ancillary activities going on right from the start. We applauded the decision of the fair organisers to ban wheeled laptop cases and suitcases from the aisles this year: it made moving around much less hazardous and increased the feasibility of working to the tight schedules that most of us have to cope with.

So what were this year’s big themes? For academic publishers, Plan S in particular and Open Access publishing more generally probably overshadowed everything except Brexit. (Comments on that, especially from European publishers, were fairly uniform: horrified, puzzled, dismayed by the events unfolding in Parliament while the fair was running.) ALPSP ran a seminar on Plan S and Open publishing on the Wednesday morning, at which David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England, was the keynote speaker. Elsewhere at the fair, prominent themes included Fake News – or, rather, how to combat it; freedom of speech; and, on a less abstract level, the rise and rise of talking books (please follow this blog to read more about this in the next couple of weeks).

The PEN stand was mobbed by young authors demanding freedom of speech for all – which until recently would have been a laughable exhibition of preaching to the converted, particularly in such an environment; but recent events in both Europe and the USA, as well as further afield in the world, have now demonstrated very strongly the importance of not taking freedom of speech – not to say the accurate representation of the truth – for granted.

The importance of supporting creativity and allowing authors and other creative artists by maintaining copyright law was also the theme of this year’s Charles Clark Memorial Lecture, delivered by Professor Daniel Gervais, Milton R Underwood Chair in Law and Director of the Vanderbilt Intellectual Property Program at Vanderbilt Law School, which was entitled Copyright, Books and Progress. Professor Gervais’ central premise was that copyright should be fiercely defenced to incentivise the “right things” – i.e., matters central to the progress of human civilisation. He said that it was clear that in order to achieve its aims, new content must not only be created but made available, while finding ways not to disadvantage those who have spent their lives perfecting their creative craft. His message was that rules should be created and observed to maximise access to content, while providing authors with sustainable livelihoods. You will be able to read more details about the lecture on this blog soon.

Stephen Page, CEO of Faber, also spoke of the need to preserve the essential values of civilisation in one of the opening speeches of the fair. Like Professor Gervais, he depicted publishing and the laws and norms that underpin it as central to the development of civilised society. “We need to have the courage to fight for our values we believe in: free speech, respect for ideas and intellectual life, for copyright, and for the right of an artist to make a living; and for our local markets.”

The Author Centre was frantically busy, as usual; and several new amenities were provided for authors, including Author HQ, organised by Midas, which gave pre-chosen authors the chance to pitch to agents in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ kind of way.

Indonesia was the guest country of the book fair this year and some of the Indonesia publications were both exotic and wonderful. However, China seemed to have an even greater representation, and Indian publishers also enjoyed a much higher profile than in the past.

All in all, the atmosphere was joyful, celebratory and can-do. Although – as indicated in this summary – some of the underlying reasons for preoccupations aired at the fair were deadly serious, the end result was the display of an industry perhaps more united than usual about what it stands for.