Opinion: A Baseball Analogy

Stiff competition under the current biomedical publishing model prevents important work from reaching a wider community in a timely manner. 

Jul 26, 2016
Dean Tantin

DEAN TANTINYears of blood, sweat, and tears. The efforts of multiple labs invested. You and your coauthors determine that the work is reasonably complete, so you write it up and send it out.

Only the most naive among us can reasonably hope that’s the end of the journey. Oftentimes, years of serial editorial rejections, reviewer comments, and revisions await. Meanwhile, the next story never has a chance to get off the ground and a grant renewal is derailed. Many of us have been there. But why do the majority of biomedical scientists feel compelled to play this game?

These are strange times for publishing. Given the circumstances, there has never been a worse time to publish one’s science. Yet, at the same time, journals are proliferating. The result is a larger, more uneven playing field than ever before.

I’m no baseball fan, but in honor of the boys of summer I’d like to draw an analogy between the game and our current biomedical scientific publishing system. Baseball is not only a competition between teams, but also between individuals: the pitcher stopping the batter, the first baseman stopping the runner, and so on.

In an effort to get grants and advance their careers, scientists are compelled to submit manuscripts to the best journals with which they think they have a reasonable chance of success. The top journals employ professional editors as gatekeepers, performing triage on a torrent of submitted manuscripts, rejecting most before they reach peer review. An elite few of these journals act as kingmakers: a paper published in one of these titles can make someone’s career. Success with one of these journals therefore constitutes a “home run.”

The supremacy of these top journals is quite stable, but lower in the ranks there is a constant jostling for position. Even further down is an expanding cohort of easy-to-publish-in journals, which generally have less-stringent acceptance criteria and lack copy editors (but nevertheless require hefty fees). To make matters more complex, many top-tier journals have their own higher-throughput titles. These publications gain stock above their nominal peers by association with their high-tier siblings, and are often offered as a sort of consolation prize to authors who lose out on the home run.

This publication model is like baseball: the goal of the author is to progress as far and as quickly through the system as possible. The editor’s goal is different: to maintain and extend his or her journal’s status and influence in part through the practice of exclusivity. The baseball model maximizes competition and stratifies papers. Because no one can read all the relevant papers in one’s field, the scientific community employs a surrogate for paper quality (journal impact factor).

In contrast to the complexities of competing in a baseball game, a batting cage narrows the focus to one thing: hitting the ball as far as possible. Alternative publication systems used by physicists and mathematicians for years have more in common with a batting cage than a baseball game. And, after several early fits and starts, biomedical publishing may finally be moving to catch up. (See “The Zombie Literature,” The Scientist, May 2016; “Opinion: Out With the Old,” The Scientist, January 21, 2015; “The Year in Science Publishing,” The Scientist, December 30, 2013; “Preprints Galore,” The Scientist, November 12, 2013.)

Preprints, the products of a batting cage model in which reasonably complete articles are placed on a server and immediately enter the public domain, enable open commentary. Once necessary modifications are made, the manuscript is signed and certified by the authors. Peer review can then take place. Addenda and corrigenda can be added, post-publication. The playing field is leveled.

What about copy editing? Would streamlining publications play into the mentality of simply counting publications? How would grant reviewers and tenure committees weigh papers without the use of journal reputation as a surrogate for quality? How do we maintain a reasonable degree of competition without putting control over evaluation in the hands of a select few?

There are kinks to work out before the community abandons traditional publishing for the batting cage. However, the benefits of open commentary outweigh the risks.

The immediacy of preprint publishing and the ability to cite the work will accelerate the pace of discovery and accurately establish priority. Editors and peer reviews become less like opposing players and more like referees that certify a hit, measure the distance traveled by the ball, and suggest straightforward means to increase it still further. And finally, money currently siphoned into publishing companies can be returned to the scientific enterprise.

Dean Tantin is an associate professor of pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.