Survival of the Fittest (to print)

Science publishing is locked in an evolutionary arms race as it edges further into the digital age.

By Mary Beth Aberlin | August 1, 2012

Dreamstime, Andre Maritz

What’s black and white and ‘read’ all over?”  “A blushing zebra!” we’d always shout as kids, even when we knew the right answer: “a newspaper.”

But in the years since I first heard this punning riddle, the rise of the Internet has put a new face on the dissemination of information, challenging both researchers and publishers to find the best way to communicate scientific findings swiftly, cheaply, and effectively. No longer is there a black-and-white way of publishing scientific papers, especially those intended to be read all over.

Novel publishing platforms are being developed and launched at dizzying rates. As we go to press, and within less than a week of each other, both BioMed Central and F1000 announced the launch of new open-access (OA) journals. (The two companies are the brainchildren of Vitek Tracz, former owner of The Scientist.) One of the pioneers of open-access publishing, BioMed Central (now owned by Springer) opened shop in 2000 and currently publishes 240 peer-reviewed, OA journals. On July 12, it added GigaScience, an OA and open-data journal published in collaboration with BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) that is devoted to “research that uses or produces ‘big data’” and “integrates manuscript publication with complete data hosting, and analyses tool incorporation.” One article reportedly contains 84 gigabytes of data!

The following day, F1000 Research initiated a soft launch, publishing the first of three articles released over 4 days, with a formal launch planned for later this year. But the editorial process of this OA journal is very different. F1000 Research offers immediate publication “after a rapid initial check by the in-house editorial team,” with peer review to be conducted post-publication—“fast, formal, and completely open.”

No longer is there a black-and-white way of publishing scientific papers, especially those intended to be
read all over.

Also planning to accept submissions this September is the OA journal PeerJ, whose cofounder Peter Binfield is the former publisher of PLoS ONE. While PeerJ will publish peer-reviewed biological and medical articles, it will not charge authors on a per-article basis, but rather offers three-tiered, lifetime membership for a fee based on the number of articles an author publishes—fees substantially lower than those charged by other OA journals. The other factor that differentiates PeerJ from all the other new kids on the block is that articles submitted for publication will not be rated for impact.


Billed as being published by scientists for scientists and launching this winter, eLife will publish only high-impact articles, which it began accepting on June 21. Initially the journal will not be charging authors. University of California, Berkeley, biologist and former editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Randy Schekman will be the journal’s top editor.

Schekman is one of 12 researchers, information scientists, and publishers who debate how increasingly complex and data-heavy scientific research should be presented in “Whither Science Publishing?.” Yes or no to peer review? Who should pay to publish? When to go open access? Two complementary Critic at Large columns examine predatory publishers and the need to set transparency standards.

This month’s magazine also contains a progress report, “Replacement Parts,” on two very different methods for addressing the huge shortage of organs suitable for transplanting into humans: xenotransplantation from genetically engineered pigs, and the use of artificial or decellularized scaffolds seeded with a patient’s own cells and grown in the laboratory. You will also find the perennially popular Best Places to Work in Academia—our 10th annual survey.

It’s not black and white, but this issue is one to be read all over.

Mary Beth Aberlin

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Avatar of: Dov Henis

Dov Henis

Posts: 1457

August 10, 2012

BTW: Re "Survival of the fittest - Natural Selection:"
* All mass formats follow natural selection, i.e. intake of energy or their energy taken in by other mass formats.
Dov Henis
(comments from 22nd century)

Avatar of: Guest


August 14, 2012

This is more than just a reply to EllenHunt. Ellen, there is so much obvious intelligence and wisdom in what you say here, that it is difficult, though valid, to try to take the edge off of it (in my estimation). I'm GLAD you say these things. They point to some things that need to be addressed.

A couple who are friends of my wife and me have a genius son whom they discouraged from entering the academic community on basis of the argument that he is much too easy-going, much too eager to live and let live, much too willing to listen, and to meet and deal. Sounds like a recipe for the best scientist or science academician of the year, unless one considers the "rest of the story." You see, this couple have been there, in that environment, and many true, blood-curdling anecdotes from hell, as it were, to share. But they do not dare. Dr. (my friend), now retired said, "I am tempted to write a book about what went on behind the scene at (deleted) university during the time I was there: the sexual affairs, the plagiarisms, the stolen credit for accomplishments of precocious student "colleagues," the trumped up causes for firings or passings over for promotion... the ego wars..."

"Our son is too much interested in getting along with others, and getting out of their way when they are aggressive or -- as the case more often occurs -- passive aggressive and/or clandestine," and clique-based, so that acting out of hostility sometimes is routed through another person."

"Our son would be chewed up and spit out and would never know what hit him," (this retired academician) confided to me. "They would chew him up and spit him out as easily as taking candy from a baby."

But, as I said above, this my message is about more than replying to you. It is also about the use, once more, of the term "evolution."

Evolution is the most over-used word in the English language today.

Do I mean by saying this that evolution does not occur? Emphatically no! What I mean is that it is so over-used, so emotionally loaded down, so inflammatory in ANY setting, that its use in THOUSANDS of articles is counter-productive.

Just imagine this scenario:

A candidate for an advanced degree turns in a paper about what he has been working on and thinking on fervently for two years. The paper contains many excellent observations of the student's own, and cites many supporting observations of others.
His "guru" professor reads the work, is highly impressed with it, but has one question -- namely --

"Is it possible that you could rewrite all of this and omit the word evolution? Could you still write the work, and find ways to make clear what it is you are saying? Is it possible that you are using this word as a cop-out and a gloss-over?"

Please do not doubt it for an instant. My concerned friend's genius son could do it. In fact, he could write up a study so clearly and persuasively and poignantly that it would
make a contribution to his field -- the field he will NOT go into.

If that young man were to fail to use the word evolution, his father is convinced, and I am convinced, his chances of being published would be drastically reduced.

Do I believe that the phenomenon so vaguely and sometimes vacuously labeled "evolution" describes things that actually have occurred and are occurring? Of course I do. What strikes me as over-use of this one word, as a catch-all, and as a crutch, often disguises a paucity of particulars that don't make it into the light of day.

How I would love to see many articles, and article titles (which sometimes contain the word evolution, where it often is not in any way essential to the main thesis or finding) improved by use of richer, less ambiguous and more useful descriptors.

Nahhhh. It ain't gonna' happen. Not in the near future, at least.

Just as students in secondary schools and, sadly, in colleges, speak of reading a book because it is "good," or "amazing," or "important" ... fuzziness abounds in some papers and articles repeating the word "evolution" as if it were not vague and ambiguous and, at best approximate, and/or peripheral to any new and enlightening observations, or results.

Nahhh. Someone will come out of the woodwork and pronounce that I have unfairly and unrealistically and unscientifically sought to plant the notion that evolution does not happen. Some things are amazing. Some things are cool. Some things are important. Some books are good. Chickens cluck and dogs bark.

I suspect your remarks, to which this party applies, will strike a nerve or two, also.

Sometimes if we want to become a lightening rod, we state the obvious and then duck.
(: > )

Avatar of: Guest


August 14, 2012

P. S. This is inserted after my original post. I failed to say that my wise old friend said, "Ahhhh, but if I wrote that book I would have to change my name and go into a witness protection program.

Avatar of: Guest


August 14, 2012

How interesting that the headline indicates the article is about something evolutionary. My evolutionary wife and my evolutionary self have an evolutionary dog which we are evolutionarily very fond of because that evolutionary little rascal loves us evolutionarily unconditionally. Evolutionary domesticated cats we do not like because although they are evolutionary the fittest, meaning that they are here to prove it evolutionarily, and otherwise would NOT have proved them evolutionarily the fittest, and, ironically dogs which ALSO are proven to be the evolutionarily fittest thereby, just appeal to us more for some evolutionary reason it might take an evolutionary theorist to know about, don't you see. But, all that being evolutionarily so scientific, you might be interested evolutionarily in knowing that I evolutionarily raise and evolutionary garden, and my evolutionary beans are coming up and evolutionarily putting on evolutionary primordial leaves or, at least, some kind of evolutionary leaves. But, there are other evolutionary players in our yard, and I have to mow the evolutionary grass tomorrow morning, and trim the evolutionary honeysuckle off the fence alongside my evolutionary beans, in order for them to get as much evolutionary sunlight as they evolutionarily require.

Is it not evolutionarily interesting to evolutionary persons of high evolutionary education that I am learning daily, by reading evolutionary articles about evolutionary subjects, and becoming something of an appreciator of evolutionary phenomena.

Hey, if writers of articles and pier review papers, and headline writers for publishers love to use various forms of the word evolution so much to get published or sell publications, then maybe if I over-use the word maybe I, too, can impress evolutionary people with how astute I evolutionarily am.

Avatar of: EllenHunt


Posts: 74

August 14, 2012

Best of luck to eLife. I bet only on winners myself when I'm at the racetrack.
Seriously, what rubbish. That's like deciding only to publish bestsellers. One would think that the oxymoronic nature of their mission statement would be obvious to any scientist not suffering from delusions or brain damage. The eLife journal sounds like a political snakepit from the getgo, doomed to fail. Brrr.
Face it. Scientists tend to be jerks. Many don't give a damn about anything except taking care of number one, and this gets worse the closer you get to medicine. Just take a look at the salary supplements (paid out of NIH grants) to PIs in California, where state salary info is public record. (Google SacBee state worker salary database) What you will see is a pattern of PIs paying themselves more in supplement out of their grants (to raise their salaries up near or above $200K per year) than they pay anybody in their labs.
Google scholar is the way that most journal articles are found these days.

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