Scientific publishing (1/2): The current system is broken

I have been honored to serve as Chief-Editor of the section in Cell and Molecular Neuroscience of a prestigious journal, until I resigned this month. It was time  for me to leave space to someone with a stronger belief in the peer-review system. In my case, this has been slowly eroding during the past years, as I witness a steady decline in scholarship, transparency and basic respect across the publishing enterprise and its actors. Failed scientists become editors of powerful journals but their shallow competence limits them as over-qualified secretaries. Researchers with little time to spare accept to review papers, but end up providing senseless and superficial evaluations of dismal scholarship.

This is a system that perhaps did work up to the early days of the internet, when there were fewer scientists and fewer avenues to efficiently communicate research. I don’t believe the journal model is scalable to our current situation. I also feel this model, with its rankings, impact factors and all that, is causing great damage to young investigators that aspire to establish themselves and become professional researchers. Something is very wrong when the value of a discovery is measured by where it was published rather than what was discovered. So much talent is being lost because of this. (Not everyone has the stamina and tenacity of Katalin Karikó, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize who never got a R01 grant approved through peer-review.)

I feel that the current publication system is corrupted from its roots and have suffered from being part of it,  from feeling accomplice to a system that perverts science and the development of young scientists’ careers. So, I resigned and now I am no longer part of it. I do not believe the ailments of the current system can be solved by launching more journals, regardless how well intentioned those may be. (Need only to look at eLife’s development; it’s become a farce!) In our current time of 2023 (soon 2024), scientific dissemination is better served by other means, such as preprint servers, online science forums and other platforms. (My proposal on this to be posted here soon.)

After a few years of regular examination of content at bioRxiv, a repository of paper “pre-prints” without traditional peer-review, I have come to realize that the so-called added value of peer-reviewed research is a fallacy. The vast majority of manuscripts rejected through peer-review in one journal get published in exactly the same form in another journal. What is then the value of peer-review if not delayed dissemination and a constant source of frustration, agony and anger to authors? Personally, I do not need any “expert” peer-review nonsense to tell me whether a research result is something to be taken seriously or just pure humbug. I can perfectly make that judgment myself (and I do find quite a bit of humbug among peer-reviewed papers). I understand that perhaps journalists, policy makers and members of the public do not have a capacity to make such assessment. Is that then enough justification to perpetuate the current peer-review system? If so, this would have to change dramatically to serve those specific interests, and stop being an arbitrary barrier for research dissemination and career development.

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