On Scientific Publishing

Science is as much about doing experiments and finding things out, as about sharing those findings through their dissemination, in seminars and publications.  Not very much has changed over the last fifty years in the format of our communication. Well, yes, we have Powerpoint and there are movies and colour and glossiness matters but in essence the way we communicate our results has not changed. However, one thing has happened and this is that the matter of publishing has become a complicated, cumbersome and frustrating business. The seams of the system are beginning to crack and people are beginning to speak up.

Recently, Jordan Raff, editor in Chief of Biology Open, published an editorial (Publishing in the biomedical sciences:if it’s broken, fix it!) which has been published in The Node. The editorial is an attempt to summarize some aspects of the situation and represents a call for a debate.  Below is my reply and I would encourage people to respond by sharing our views and offering solutions to the problem.

This is an important matter which encompasses topics like impact factor and peer review. The last few years have seen a lot of activity in the area of Open Access, and some real progress has been made so solve some of the problems generated by the evolution of scientific publishing and the associated costs. However I would contend that Peer Review and the Uses and Misuses of impact factors are much more relevant to us, as a community. It would be good if we were to engage on a debate to try to improve the system.

Here is my reply to Jordan Raff’s posting (which can also be found in The Node)

I am very surprised that topics like the ones Jordan has raised here have received so little attention and a mute response by the community.  Do we really care so little? Are we so busy beavering away to improve our impact factor (IF) that we cannot raise to what he says and comment on? Maybe this explains the heart of the problem which is an apathy to change the system. The article is very explicit about topics, particularly the misuse and abuse of the impact factor as a proxy for quality, that all of us discuss avidly in private and yet, when it is put on the table we refrain from giving our views which is like saying that we are happy with the system. Really? Why can’t we come out and discuss these issues openly?

I agree with Jordan that the system is no longer fit for purpose or, maybe more appropriately, that it has developed its own purpose. The evolution of publishing over the last twenty years has seen a reversal of roles: where scientists used publishing to air and discuss their results and thoughts, publishers now use scientists to develop their business and, on the way, determine the paths and the modes of scientific endeavour. There is some good science coming out of this but, more often, a lot of damage is done and is being done to our enterprise. Of course, situations like this are not reached by default. We, the community, contribute to it by going with the flow, and the muted response to this piece from Jordan is an indictment of the current situation.

It is strange that issues like Open Access, which have more to do with the journals than with us, receive so much attention and have led to some significant and important changes in the system.  And yet, the system itself, the impact factor and, more significantly the peer review process (more about this in future postings), do not get the same attention.  If it did, if we could move together, maybe we could change it.

To take on Jordan and try to get something going: things will change but maybe slower than he thinks. I would love to be wrong here. In my view there are three forces slowing down change. The first one is that the current generation of scientists has grown with the system as it is, in fact it has made the system, and this attitude passes on to the next generation It is this generation, the current postdocs and PhD students, who are finding that the system lets them down, and therefore it is this generation that has the choice (we also do and should exercise it) to carry on as things are or to prepare the way for the next generation which might implement the changes. A second important force is our submission to the system. As long as we are happy to invest 10 or 14 months (and growing) to get a publication in one of those High IF (HIF) journals, the system will not change. As long we agree to the ever increasing, and sometimes absurd demands, of reviewers and editors and are happy to invest all this time to improve a paper 5 or 10% in order to get that publication, instead of trying to publish in lower IF (LIF) journals, the system will not change and, as it is already happening, the LIFs will demand as much as the HIFs. Finally, as long as those who decide jobs and fellowships use the publication brand rather than the science of the individual as a guide for selection, the system will not change.

In the end it is an odd realization that at a time in which the internet has changed the music and the book industries, has revolutionized commerce, politics, and interactions between people, making all of them more democratic, all we have done with it is to make the system that fuels our job more cumbersome, its fabric less helpful to us, we have created a mesh in which we, as a community, are drowning while the journals flourish by making more difficult for us to do with we do. I can see that the quality of science cannot be decided by how many clicks your paper has, but it is also true that the current system is not working as it should and that, as Jordan says, it is in need of change.

It would be helpful if, as starters, more of us would enter into debates like the one proposed here as a way to get the ground ready for real change.