WIKIMEDIA, BRIAN108 (LEFT); SWTPC6800 (RIGHT)It used to be that the only way a scientist could keep up with the latest research in her field was to read printed papers published in the journals that she or her institution had subscribed to. Then came the Internet. Compared with other communities, the scientific enterprise was slow to embrace the digital dissemination of information. Eventually, most journals appeared online.
During the transition to this new world of advanced access and online firsts, more and more scientists began blogging and participating in crowdsourced commentary. Today, many stakeholders agree that the publishing system ought to be replaced with a more efficient and transparent platform: one that benefits both authors and readers. But before we can improve upon the existing formula, we must assess its utility.
Scholarly journals serve two major functions: curation and dissemination. Under the current framework, the curatorial function that journal editors and peer reviewers fulfill is considered problematic by many scientists: there is often tremendous disagreement among editors and reviewers about what constitutes a sufficiently “significant” advance to warrant publication in a specific journal1. Acceptance of a given manuscript largely reflects a value judgment of reviewers and editors about the impact that a paper may have on the relevant scientific field.
The Internet helped democratize publishing. Scientists today can post a body of research and allow all interested readers to evaluate the work’s merit. This is why some scientists are now uploading pre-refereed work to servers like ArXiv and the life science-focused BioRxiv. Posting their work on public archives also ensures that anybody who wishes to access the work can read it for free. Post-publication review has traditionally been implemented in the—peer-reviewed and edited—pages of journals, but is now being done in newer fora (e.g. PubPeer). In addition, post-publication review is replacing pre-publication review in some new open-access journals (e.g., F1000 Research and PeerJ).
Furthermore, databases, search engines, and social media have essentially commandeered the curatorial function that journals are meant to fulfill. In the past, editors curated the content of a journal into a coherent body of work. Scientists now use Google Scholar, Web of Science, and other databases to identify articles of interest. They use Twitter and other social media to follow scientists doing work relevant to their own, and to engage in conversations about current issues in their field.
Rather than reading journals from cover to cover, scientists today are reading exactly what’s relevant to them with the help of personalized, web-based tools. This brings us back to journals, and the role they play in the dissemination of information.
Even in today’s digital era, traditional publishers still greedily guard content that is generated and reviewed by academics. Of course, quality content costs money to produce. But a growing group of open-access publishers have come up with a few creative ways to address certain problems in the traditional publishing system.
Right now, there are already tools in place to (1) create publishing platforms that are open-access and less biased with value judgments, (2) to create a more efficient and transparent peer-review process, and (3) to curate research findings of interest to scientific communities. So why aren’t we using them more broadly and systematically?
Aside from historical inertia, one of the main reasons that the current publishing system prevails is the prestige associated with publishing papers in top-tier journals. Publishing in top journals is a proxy utilized by hiring and promotion committees to make important decisions and thus can have immense impact on early scientists’ careers. Because hiring and promotion committees are often made up of scholars who are not experts in the field of the investigator they are charged with reviewing, they tend to depend on journals—which rely on expert reviewers in the field—to evaluate the work of their colleague.
Until the scientific community develops an alternative model for evaluating the impact of an investigator’s work, the hierarchical journal system will persist. And because alternative publishing platforms have not yet achieved such prestige, there is little incentive for researchers—especially junior investigators—to choose them. (As a junior faculty member at a large state university in the Southwest who wished to remain anonymous told me: “The kinds of journals that have post publication peer review are not high impact, and are not viewed favorably by promotion and tenure committees.”)
By combining preprints, transparent peer review (reviews received as well as reviews written about others’ work), post-publication peer review, and web analytics, hiring and promotion committees could glean a better idea of an investigator’s impact on her field; this holistic approach would yield more robust data than the number of Nature papers a researcher has, or the number of times her Cell work was cited. To that end, scientist’s intellectual efforts—from preprints to analytics—must be captured more systematically and rigorously. A web service that consolidates all of this information would be useful to hiring and promotion committees, grant review committees, and others interested in evaluating the impact of a researcher’s body of work. And yes, these would have to be reviewed by experts in the field. One key to making this work would be to recognize the value added by good reviewers—and compensating them accordingly.
1As is abundantly clear, peer review is far from perfect. But for now, at least, it ensures a minimum quality standard—and helps justify the existence of traditional journals.
Viviane Callier is a research scholar at the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship and scientific communications editor at the National Cancer Institute.