Revolution to Evolution — HortTechnology in the 21st Century

I  am a member of the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS).  The society has three journals: Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science, HortScience, and HortTechnology.  I have published in all three and they are high quality journals.  However, I believe that HortTechnology doesn’t quite reach its target audience.  So, I wrote this for the ASHS newsletter to see if we, as a society, could improve the journal and reach new audiences.

INTRO

“I (Dr. Paul Bosland, President of ASHS) am pleased to share with you a guest “Reflections” column by Dr. Eric T. Stafne, Extension Professor at Mississippi State University. As a Cooperative Extension person, he is on the frontlines with our horticulture clientele providing better horticulture through education. I and my wife, Judy, worked for Cooperative Extension in California in the early 1980s, so I know first-hand the importance of reaching growers with new information quickly. Eric has experience and familiarity with delivering information in electronic format, and sees great potential for reaching many more clientele with our research results through electronic media. If his comments stimulate discussion and thought, it will be a successful “Reflections” column.”

ARTICLE

“I was intrigued when I read Dr. Bosland’s open invitation to write a guest column in his first “Reflections.” I have a 100% Cooperative Extension appointment and am heavily involved in the eXtension world, so I think a lot about extension and outreach education. How can I develop and deliver programs and materials better? Not only that, but what is the future technology that will be the educational vanguard?

Jensen et al. (2008) found that scientists who are more active in disseminating their work beyond the academic realm realized no impact from those efforts on furthering their career. I did not find this result surprising, but rather disheartening. In my view, we should be taking the results of our work to those who need it most. I realize that some research is not applicable to the grower today, but rather in the future. However, we need to do a better job of explaining how our research is a piece of a larger puzzle that at some point will have practical application.

The revolution that my title refers to is that which is occurring in the publication world. In Europe especially there is a strong call for open-access science, with the World Bank, the British government, and the Wellcome Trust all calling for open access. Publishing firms that publish scientific work and use a “paywall” are being decried as inhibitors of information dissemination. Paying to publish one’s research has been common practice for the horticulture science community for a long time and there are reasons for it, namely the cost to print the publication and send it to subscribers. To me, this model still makes (some) sense for the Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science and HortScience, but far less so for HortTechnology. In the “About” section for HortTechnology, the journal is described below:

HortTechnology serves as the primary outreach publication of the American Society for Horticultural Science. Its mission is to provide science-based information to professional horticulturists, practitioners, and educators; promote and encourage an interchange of ideas among scientists, educators, and professionals working in horticulture; and provide an opportunity for peer review of practical horticultural information.

An outreach publication should strive to reach its end user—growers, horticulturists, those working in the field, the greenhouse, and the golf course. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet any of these folks who read HortTechnology. In theory, these articles are delivered through the filter of an extension employee to the end user, but that doesn’t really occur either. Many extension personnel have not paid for access to HortTechnology and growers often search for information online first anyway. The upside is that we still have the opportunity to change this. Social media has made it easier to get the word out on new, important, impactful work, but it only works if the reader can access the article.

Currently, every author of a HortTechnology article is invited to prepare a 100-word “popular” summary of their paper in the “Spotlight” section of the journal ( download the February 2013 “Spotlight”).The “Spotlight” is written in layman’s terms for a popular audience, but it is essentially a more “reader-friendly” abstract. Recently, this section was made freely available to anyone who wishes to read it. This is a positive step, but could more modification make it even better? Gunter and Osterrieder (2012) suggested that all scientific articles include an outreach section. HortTechnology would be a great place to start this. Even though the intended audience of HortTechnology is the end user (or should be), articles are still written in a scientific style. We should not change that, but rather include a section written in layman’s terms that answers the question, “What does this study mean to the grower?”

I would also go a step farther and advocate that all articles published in HortTechnology be made more accessible to all so that the latest information can make it expeditiously into the hands of those who need it most. HortTechnology is freely available from 2010 (at the time of this writing) back to the start of the journal, but if one must wait 2 or 3 years to get the information then it may lose some of its usefulness by then.

Of course, we must address the fact that ASHS has to recoup the costs of publishing in an “open-access” model, even if only digital distribution is done. Hoping to get new members to cover the cost is probably not a viable option. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “He who lives upon hope will die fasting.” But, by foregoing print altogether and having HortTechnology as an entirely digital journal, at least the costs associated with printing and mailing could be saved. Is this a realistic goal? Other journals already do it. Is 2014 too early for HortTechnology to go only digital? There are, of course, other ways to also increase funding. One would be to increase the advertising on the digital edition with clickable links that generate a small amount for each click. A related possibility is to give companies whose products are used in a study (i.e., mentioned in the Materials and Methods section) the opportunity to “sponsor” the publication, although this begins to meander down the slippery slope of scientific integrity. Increasing publishing fees is another option, although this option is less palatable to authors.

The most practical option might be to charge less for downloading an article, perhaps for 99 cents, like music on iTunes. This strategy has been successful for eBooks, but it is not perfect either. At any cost, we must preserve the high standards ofHortTechnology and not allow perception of it to drop with the price. Even so, it would be a place to start with refinements coming down the road.

Let’s take a positive step to change that with a publication that can be accessed, read, and understood by all. HortTechnologycan become a strong marketing tool for our Society, as well as encouraging new members and increasing article submissions. Articles, or at least meaningful outreach sections of articles, can be put online ahead of publication with social media outlets such as Twitter, expanding the reach to a larger audience by linking back to the article. I look forward to working with my colleagues to evolve the mission of HortTechnology so that it can ultimately act as our society’s true outreach publication.

Literature Cited

Gunter, C. and A. Osterrieder. 2012. A modest proposal for an outreach section in scientific publication. Genome Biology 13:168-171.

Jensen, P., J-B. Rouquier, P. Kreimer, and Y. Croissant. 2008. Scientists who engage with society perform better academically. Science and Public Policy 35:527-541.”

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