Message from the President

It is both a pleasure and an honour for me to write this note to you, the ESB members, as the society’s president. I am profoundly aware of the substantial contributions, the reputations and especially the eloquence of my predecessors.  I have been active in the ESB for nearly two decades now, and yet a part of me still feels very much like the wide-eyed and enthusiastic young PhD student who was introduced to the society in Toulouse. I have observed over those years the incredible way in which the research community and the underlying inquisitive nature of science breaks down barriers and bridges generations, through open communication and a shared desire to discover, which is probably why the time flies.

At our recent meeting in Lyon, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the future of scientific discourse.  The meeting was excellent, the material presented was thought-provoking, and yet I found myself craving even more open and stimulating discussion of the science.  This is not to be interpreted as a criticism; as a co-organiser of the 2008 ESB meeting, I am profoundly aware of the balancing act that the local organizing committee makes when they set their program, with the help of a multi-disciplinary scientific committee. How many parallel sessions are appropriate?  How much time shall be allocated to each speaker? How can we provide enough opportunities for discussion?  How can we meet the different needs and expectations of many hundreds of participants?

Over the years I’ve attended meetings that cover nearly all possible formats, from small focus sessions with a few dozen participants to international conferences that only fit in a handful of super-sized conference venues. Paradoxically, I have then seen small groups split further into multiple parallel sessions, while a thousand participants could follow a multi-day, single-session agenda.  Each has merit, but the challenge is always to get people talking, questioning and truly interacting.  Our society has steamed past the 1,000-member mark, with no signs of losing momentum, but I would like to ensure that we preserve the familiar aspect of open discussion and, with this in mind, that we continue to make the effort to integrate established and also new concepts for exchange into our meetings to meet this goal.

Many of us are faced with important discussions and debate on the future of scientific publication, with many competing and often contradictory factors influencing our own choices, the expectations of our institutions and the policies of our scientific community. Our society has been fortunate to be associated since its beginning with leading scientific journals, and vice versa, but a reliance on the good fortunes of the past may blind us to the opportunities of the future. During his time on the council, Damien Lacroix wrote some candid and provocative comments in our newsletter on the potential for a stagnation of the biomechanics community, in terms of dissemination and the impact of our work.  In my own university, we held a strategy retreat attended by the majority of the faculty, and a central theme was defining scientific impact, with an emphasis on current and future methods for dissemination.  It was insightful to hear the views of colleagues in the physics and mathematics fields, who for decades now have strongly promoted arXiv (https://arxiv.org), a repository of electronic pre-prints, which includes moderation and endorsement of content, but not a classical peer review. While considering the topic, I came across the 1996 short communication from John McCarthy, a renowned computer scientist from Stanford University, entitled “The Future of Scientific Publication”. It is insightful to compare McCarthy’s contentions against the current state of publication, 20 years later, although I do not claim that McCarthy was the first to voice these thoughts. McCarthy called for many of the enabling technologies and processes that we are now either already embracing, or attempting to implement: online publication, electronic readers, wireless transmission, and open access with transparent page costs (for the author and reader). He hints at the challenges facing the traditional publisher and also champions clear policies for fair-use of the author’s work, which is reflected in the current uncertainty many of us experience over the nature of copyright transfer and our ability to self-archive our work. Ironically, McCarthy’s own communication highlights one of the basic problems with a rapidly developing publication process in an increasingly digital landscape, as his reference to Jeff Ullman’s critique of paper journals contains an extinct hyperlink (although an archive copy can be found here).

Scientific publication is changing at an unprecedented rate, faster even than many of us expected and sometimes out-pacing our own ability to react. Our society has maintained close relationships with several leading journals over the years, contributing strong leadership at the editorial level, high-quality submissions and effective peer-review. We have a vested interest as a society to ensure that these journals with a rich history and strong ties to our members can increase their impact as they evolve with the changing field. At the same time, we must remain open to positive new developments. Ultimately, open access should be the goal for the effective dissemination of knowledge. The question remains how to best achieve this. The simplest form is a parallel open access option on “traditional” journal publications. However, as Damien Lacroix already observed, the biomechanics field is moving beyond traditional boundaries, and this opens the door to a new category of scientific “mega-journals”, for example PeerJ, which often present substantially different models for publishing and accessing scientific reports. Open access has also a dark side, with a growing number of predatory publishers collecting publishing fees while seldom offering the editorial and publishing services expected from a valid scientific journal.  The balance between the author’s rights to their own work, the community’s right to fair access to this work, and the publisher’s right to reasonable compensation for legitimate editorial services is a subject of much debate. Even the leanest online-only publishing operation requires a minimum investment of effort and money, despite the voluntary services of many editorial staff and reviewers to maintain a high scientific quality and a reliable and permanent archive of articles. Where does one draw the line defining the boundaries of ownership and compensation? An extreme position would be that there are no rights to be respected, no payment due for consumption, as pirate sites have emerged now even for scientific publication. While few would argue for the legality of this, the Washington Post has drawn parallels in this case to the impact of Napster on the music industry.  This is certainly not the last we will hear about varying opinions on “fair use” in scientific publication.

The European Society of Biomechanics must continue in the future to take an active role in defining the publication landscape for its members. There have been excellent initiatives from the Council in the past to assess the value of the various publication channels available, or to initiate new partnerships, and I hope that we can build strongly on these.

In Lyon, we had many other thought-provoking discussions with our continuing and incoming council members.  We have ideas for improving networking and dialogue between institutions, for stimulating the creativity of students and young researchers with new challenges, and for dealing with the changes that will come with results of the Brexit vote.  Our outgoing council members were also very active right to the end of their terms, and even beyond with the transfer of duties.  On behalf of the society, I would like to thank each for their strong contributions to improving our society over the past years.  Thank you to Gwen Reilly, especially for keeping track of the rapid membership growth and society affairs as secretary, and for the enthusiasm that she brought to her presidency.  Thank you to Bill Taylor, in particular for handing over a healthy financial situation to me two years ago, and then for his tireless work on the awards program.  Thank you to Paulo Fernandes for ensuring the success of our annual meetings, from the bid process all the way through to the post-meeting review.

Stephen Ferguson