The publication of scientific papers is slowly becoming more “open,” meaning not only that in some fields (like math or physics) many of them don’t undergo the usual review process, but also that journals are increasingly adopting a policy of having free and open public access (the PLoS journals are an example), a feature subsidized by charging rather high fees to the scientists who submit papers. And scientists now have their very own Facebook equivalent, ResearchGate, where you can link to your papers, discuss those papers or other scientific questions, and find colleagues or collaborators.
In the January 16 issue of the New York Times, Thomas Lin discusses the rapidly changing face of scientific publication in a piece called “Cracking open the scientific process.”
Some of this change is facilitated, of course, by bloggers, who demand immediate access to everything, and the ability to discuss results as soon as they’re printed:
On [last] Thursday, 450 bloggers, journalists, students, scientists, librarians and programmers will converge on North Carolina State University (and thousands more will join in online) for the sixth annual ScienceOnline conference. Science is moving to a collaborative model, said Bora Zivkovic, a chronobiology blogger who is a founder of the conference, “because it works better in the current ecosystem, in the Web-connected world.”
Indeed, he said, scientists who attend the conference should not be seen as competing with one another. “Lindsay Lohan is our competitor,” he continued. “We have to get her off the screen and get science there instead.”
Well, no, Lindsay Lohan is not our competitor: those who follow that sort of tabloid journalism simply won’t be following scientific advances. We have to realize that despite all of our efforts, a large fraction of the American public simply can’t be induced to follow science. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t increase our efforts to popularize our work, simply that you can’t interest everyone all of the time.
But I do approve of much of the open-access movement. There are, however, problems with it, some of them highlighted in the Times piece.
- If there is no peer review of published papers, then there is no quality control, at least not beyond that made on posts following online publication. I myself have benefitted tremendously from the comments of reviewers, and also vet my papers to my colleagues before submitting them to journals.
- Peer review, however flawed, is a sign of professional acceptance and recognition, and peer-reviewed papers (like grants) are appropriate measures of professional success for promotion, tenure, and other ways to climb the scientific ladder.
- Open publication is expensive for the scientist, often costing several thousand dollars.
But there are upsides, too:
- Much scientific research in the U.S. and other countries is funded by government agencies (the NSF, NIH, and USDA in our country), and that money comes from taxpayers. Why should they have to pay again to get access to scientific articles reporting research funded by the taxpayers? Publicly funded research should be publicly available.
- The peer review system is slow: in the bad old days, for example, it took a year from when a paper was submitted to some evolution-related journals to when that paper appeared. That’s not a terrible problem in my field, since evolutionary research doesn’t become obsolete quickly, but it is a problem in faster-moving fields like physics and molecular biology.
- If there are problems with a paper, those problems used to take a long time to become public: other scientists would write a note of critique or response, which then had to be reviewed, another process that could take months. By that time people had largely forgotten the original paper. This was compounded by the policy of many journals (I think Science and Nature are among these) to publish the original articles in the paper journals but the responses only online. This problem has become somewhat alleviated by the instant reaction of bloggers to research that seems dubious, such as the Darwinius fossil paper and the dubious “arsenic-based life” paper.
My own views on this are the following:
- Retain peer-reviewed papers, at least in biology, as a way to ensure quality and establish criteria for professional advancement.
- Papers should be published online as soon as they are accepted in final form; eventually, all publication should be online only as a way to save trees, energy, and other resources. (This does create some problems for me because I simply can’t read articles on a computer screen and must print them out. However, I don’t print out every article in a journal, so there’s still a net saving of paper.)
- If formal critiques are accepted by a paper journal, they should be published in that paper journal instead of simply online. Nobody looks online for critiques (and hence will miss them) if they subscribe to the paper journal. If everything is online, critiques should be published following the paper as soon as they’re reviewed and accepted.
- There should be a comment section (moderated) following online papers for scientists and others to weigh in on the research.