Who should publish scientific papers?

A week ago the journal Science published the results of a year long sting-operation on the world of open-access publishing. Open-access is (perhaps, was) touted as the gold standard of scientific publishing: the authors pay the fees for publication, after which the manuscript is freely available to anyone. There is appeal to this model, a paper’s potential readership is not restricted to those with a subscription to a journal, or willing to pay to see the article (sums of around $30/article are common).

The alternative model of academic publishing is the pay-for-access model, employed to by the majority of journals. It is neatly summed up by Curt Rice in a Guardian article: the journals pay the author nothing, they pay the editor nothing, they pay the three or more reviewers who scrutinise the work nothing. These journals do incur some type-setting and infrastructure costs. They then charge the academic authors, editors, reviewers – people who provided so much for free, and without whom the journal would have nothing – through the nose for access. The general public, who pay for both the work and its quality control, have to pay again if they wish to see it. Some perceive ethical concerns with this model, and some years ago there was a movement amongst academics to boycott journals published by Elsevier, one of the biggest publishing houses, which was consistently reporting profits of hundreds of millions of dollars: about 30% of revenue. The sentiment was that Elsevier was leaching huge sums of public money for comparatively little work. The boycott movement demanded that pay-for-access journals make publications freely available after 6 months. They appear to have been successful; having recently reviewed Nature’s license to publish it seems authors retain copyright and can post their as-published paper versions online after 6 months.

Perhaps in recognition of the ethical dilemmas above, there are now several funding bodies mandating that publications arising from research they fund be published in open access journals (e.g., NIH and Wellcome Trust). Science’s article has unearthed an exponential growth in the number of “predatory” journals taking author’s publication fees whilst having in place none of the quality controls essential for a healthy scientific discipline. Many of these journals go to great lengths to appear as having roots in western scientific communities, presumably to engender trust. Science’s sting is cunning, and the results are shocking. Variations on a bogus paper, intentionally littered with scientific and ethical errors that any half-competent peer-reviewer should identify, are submitted to over 300 open-access journals. Of 304 submissions, 157 are accepted, 98 are rejected, with the remaining 49 having not yet reached a decision. Of the 255 papers that underwent the entire editing process en route to acceptance, 60% showed no sign of peer review.

There are other stunning results in Science’s paper, but you get the gist: these are scam journals. Their motivations are either to make profit, or earn ill-deserved academic merit for either authors or editors. The interesting question for me is how academic work should be published. Open access is a great ideology, but the incentives don’t stack up – journals have too great an incentive to accept work submitted to them, because that’s how they make money. The pay-for-access system has issues too, explored above. This is an economics problem: how to organise academic publishing such that the incentives line up with the best interests of science.

Its worth pondering what the concept of a journal contributes to science in the first place. Firstly, it is supposed to ensure a high quality of work is published; it is a gatekeeper, affording confidence that results constitute a worthwhile contribution. Secondly, it is a collection. An issue of a journal brings the science to you, rather than you having to go and dig it out. Everything in the journal will relate to some theme or field, and with a subscription to a particular journal scientists can stay up to date with research relevant to them. Third, it constitutes a community platform and provides a forum for discussion and debate, facilitating the emergence of themes and perspectives.

It strikes me that most of these things can be achieved using services now available on the internet: databases and indexes, and social media. PubMed sends me weekly emails containing articles selected on the basis of search terms I have entered. Using a service like this, one can scope out their own specific ‘journal’, which in fact pulls contributions from thousands of journals. Social networking services such as ResearchGate allow one to follow researchers of interest or in particular labs, keeping them up to date with publications. Further, it facilitates discussions through messaging boards specific to particular fields. It is not hard to imagine that readers could rate particular papers, much like amazon reviews, and that popular or interesting manuscripts find their way to the top of the pile in this manner, instead of being in particular journals. Internet-based services could facilitate discussions and questions relating to a particular publication, as you see on many modern day blogs and news websites. One would only hope for less vulgar and more intelligible content than what I have seen on YouTube comment feeds.

If the online facilities described above can fulfil the ‘community’ and ‘collection’ aspects of traditional journals, that leaves only the issue of peer review. It strikes me that the best people to manage the peer review process, and accredit those papers that pass, might be the funding bodies themselves. They are tax-payer owned, and not-for-profit. They are not subject to as much inter-body competition; in the UK, government-run funding bodies do not tend to overlap a great deal in scope (the case with cross-disciplinary research is more complex…), instead focussing on a specific discipline e.g. the physical or social sciences. Hence, they are not under pressure to accept a particular proportion of submissions for fear of losing public money to another agency; I cannot imagine the government giving the social sciences research council a chunk of physical science budget simply because it accepts a greater proportion of submissions and appears to be funding better science. Funding bodies would not be unduly benefiting from the efforts of publicly-funded researchers; they are the ones typically funding them. There are other non-government funding bodies, some are relatively small charities, and I do not propose that all of these necessarily manage their own peer review process; if the government-run funding bodies required some cost contribution for the reviewing process, I imagine this could be accommodated in a grant award. Funding bodies now typically permit applicants to request money for publication costs, and this money could just as easily be used to pay for a publicly-run peer review process.

This vision is far from complete, and more comprehensive thought is needed than will go into one blog post. However, I believe that a future scientific system devoid of journals in the traditional sense we have now is completely plausible, and may be much healthier for science.

(The article that spawned all this: J Bohannon. Who’s Afraid of Peer Reivew. Science, 342(6154), 60-56; 2013.)