Scientific publishing (2/2): A better way forward

The current system is broken, as argued in an earlier post. Given the arguments exposed there, is there a better way forward? I believe there is, and some ideas on how to go about it are presented below. Much of what is being proposed here represents the complete opposite of many of the fundamental principles of the current system: forums instead of journals, acceptance instead of rejection, commentary instead of review, disclosure instead of anonymity, community engagement instead of expert wisdom, live papers instead of dead papers.

Like it or not, we live in an on-line society; certainly most part of research communication and dissemination take place on-line. The word “journal”, in all its physicality, feels very much obsolete. For an on-line world, and for other reasons that will become clearer later, the word “forum” seems much more appropriate. “Neuroscience Forum” instead of “Journal of Neuroscience”. “Cancer Research Forum” instead of “Journal of Cancer Research”. How’s a Forum different from a Journal?

Currently, journals filter papers, rejecting the vast majority. Forums accept all papers submitted, after a minimal quality control to assure their authenticity, much like the preprint server bioRxiv currently operates. Journals “hoard” papers (excellent commentary by a Nature reader about this here). Upon submission, a paper is sequestered by the journal and authors are “not allowed” to submit it concurrently elsewhere, an unethical and  humiliating practice that imposes arbitrary delays in research dissemination as well as wasting valuable time to the authors. (Imagine the absurdity of being able to apply for only one job at a time!) In contrast, Forums accept simultaneous submissions and cross-reference the records of identical papers among each other, facilitating and speeding up dissemination.

Currently, papers that pass the editorial filter in journals are typically sent to two or three experts for peer-review. The opinions of expert reviewers are critical for the final acceptance of a paper by a journal, specially because most professional editors are usually rather inexperienced, not directly engaged in research and/or lack the courage to take a stake on a paper. Because these reviewers are anonymous, they can (and often do) pretty much say whatever they like, right or wrong. This can (and often does) go in ugly directions and become derogatory, unfair and even offensive to the authors. Forums gather commentaries from a similar number of experts who are instructed to expose what they think are the strengths and weaknesses of the paper. But the opinions of experts consulted by Forums do not determine the publication of papers, as these are accepted by default. Neither do these experts remain anonymous and their signed commentaries are published along with the paper on-line. The removal of anonymity makes Forum experts think twice about what to say, neither over-laudatory nor offensive.

Very few journals currently seek consensus among the reviewers consulted; in most cases a paper will be rejected if only one of the reviewers expresses a negative opinion. Worse than that, many journals encourage reviewers to provide confidential comments to the editors, comments that are never seen by the authors. Only if all reviewers are positive will usually a paper advance to the next stage in a journal. This typically involves for the authors to perform a number of revisions to the work, including multiple additional experiments. After revisions are made, papers are usually sent back to the reviewers, and even after extensive revisions, many papers are rejected, wasting months, sometimes years, of time and effort to the authors (and the funding agencies that supported their work). Only after passing this last hurdle, and only then, may a paper see the light of day in a journal. At the Forums, authors have the opportunity to respond to the commentaries from the experts and revise the original manuscript if they so wish. The papers are then published on-line along with the commentaries from the experts and the authors’ responses. Instant dissemination.

Once published, papers in traditional journals remain frozen in time. In contrast, papers published on-line in Forums remain (a)live in at least two respects. First, they are open to further commentary by members of the scientific community. Commentaries that pass a check for authenticity (and civilized language) are published on-line attached to the paper. Second, authors are able to add updates or revisions to the original paper at any time, whenever they see it necessary or appropriate. Importantly, all elements of the paper, including the original article, expert commentaries, authors’ responses, community comments, updates and revisions, are date-stamped and archived together, making it possible for anyone to follow the evolution of the paper and its impact, as well as giving authors priority of discovery, if that is something they are interested in.

I believe these concepts address the main problems of the current system with regards to transparency, bias, hoarding, dissemination, scholarship and basic human respect. How could such system be financed? Well, currently my institution pays a very handsome amount of money to Elsevier and many other publishing giants so that we can publish our work open access without we having to pay such cost for our own research grants. How about using that amount to cover the costs of the Forums instead?  I do, however, realize that these ideas may present a problem for recruitment and promotion committees as they will no longer be able to simply add up impact factors to compare the merits of candidates. (Insert tongue-in-cheek emoji here.) Academic leaders and members of these committees will simply have to sit down and read the CV of candidates, their papers and research proposals. Oh, I can already hear them crying (as I once did from a Research Vice-Dean at my former institution) : “Noooo, we don’t have the time to do that nor the competence in all those fields!” Well, in that case I’d say you do not qualify to be an academic leader… of any kind.

Comments? Submit them here and I’ll subject them to peer-review. (Another tongue-in-cheek emoji here.)

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