February 28, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Big Changes in Science Publishing Underway

People are so used to peer-reviewed scientific journals behind paywalls, it’s hard to think of any other way. Till now.

Not many decades ago, students needing to write term papers on science went to the library, pored through booklets of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, then walked through aisle after aisle of tall bookshelves, scanning Dewey Decimal labels on tomes of scientific journals. Seeking the papers jotted down on their notepads, they would run across thousands of pages of jargon in fine print interrupted with with graphs and equations. This experience undoubtedly colored students’ perceptions of science itself: austere, unapproachable, intimidating.

Now, research can be found with a few mouse clicks and read on a home computer screen or even a smartphone. An industry of science reporters dumbs down the research in friendly press releases, embedding catchy photos and video clips. It may be much less intimidating, but leaves some traditions intact: it’s not official “science” without anonymous peer review done in advance. And you have to pay money to see it.

The Revolution in Science Media

The revolution in science publishing that is underway is changing those traditions, too, offering new ways to think about fundamental questions, like what are the hallmarks of science? Who owns it? Must publishing practices be set in stone? Why can’t research be criticized immediately by real people with identities, and corrected immediately? How can biases and conflicts of interest be disclosed more easily? What about science fraud? Why can’t ordinary citizens contribute to scientific knowledge? Here are some recent articles asking such questions.

A proposal for the future of scientific publishing in the life sciences (Stern and O’Shea, PLoS Biology). This article hits the nail on the head, addressing many of the questions above. Stern and O’Shea advocate more freedom for people to contribute to the science discussion, and for ideas to be criticized openly after publication:

Science advances through rich, scholarly discussion. More than ever before, digital tools allow us to take that dialogue online. To chart a new future for open publishing, we must consider alternatives to the core features of the legacy print publishing system, such as an access paywall and editorial selection before publication. Although journals have their strengths, the traditional approach of selecting articles before publication (“curate first, publish second”) forces a focus on “getting into the right journals,” which can delay dissemination of scientific work, create opportunity costs for pushing science forward, and promote undesirable behaviors among scientists and the institutions that evaluate them. We believe that a “publish first, curate second” approach with the following features would be a strong alternative: authors decide when and what to publish; peer review reports are published, either anonymously or with attribution; and curation occurs after publication, incorporating community feedback and expert judgment to select articles for target audiences and to evaluate whether scientific work has stood the test of time. These proposed changes could optimize publishing practices for the digital age, emphasizing transparency, peer-mediated improvement, and post-publication appraisal of scientific articles.

The effect of publishing peer review reports on referee behavior in five scholarly journals (Nature Communications). What happens when peer review reports are published along with the science? The argument has been reviewers would shy away from submitting reviews, but a study of thousands of examples in an experiment showed that “publishing reports did not significantly compromise referees’ willingness to review, recommendations, or turn-around times.” Nature‘s editors found this study instructive. They plan to offer it to scientists, but not make it compulsory.

The itching ears of peer review (World Magazine). Last November, Julie Borg reported on the hoax by social scientists who had submitted “absurd, bogus papers to well-known academic journals to show how easily studies can pass the supposedly rigorous peer review process

if they spout trendy, liberal dogma. The scholars submitted 20 hoax papers to journals that focused on race, gender, sexuality, and other politically charged issues. Much to the scientific community’s shame, seven of the papers passed peer review and were published.”

Use of liberal buzzwords and progressive ideas appeared to relax editors’ standards and let the papers through. One of the submitted papers even quoted from Hitler’s Mein Kampf in a feminist context. John Stonestreet remarked, “With mainstream academic journals going to the dogs, now’s not the time for Christians to lose our educational souls to fashionable nonsense.”

Doubts and dialogue may alter public perceptions of science (University of Copenhagen). Is it OK to doubt what scientists say? These authors think so.

Science projects within controversial fields such as synthetic biology could benefit from experimenting with communication settings in which experts share their thoughts and feelings with each other and the public. This allows for a more open and constructive dialogue with the public about research – and may even generate new research ideas, a new PhD thesis shows.

What bioRxiv’s first 30,000 preprints reveal about biologists (Nature). Some biologists are following a pre-review publishing trend set by physicists. Cornell’s arXiv server allows physicists and mathematicians to put their ideas out on the internet for their colleagues to read and discuss. With over 1.5 million submissions over its 28-year history, “e-publishing” of “preprints” has a strong track record. Five years ago, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory began a similar website for biologists called BioRxiv. The response has been tremendous, Nature says, showing a million downloads a month. One benefit for science itself is the publication of negative results, “which are rarely published in journals.” And yet they are important. If an experiment fails, other scientists need to know.

European funders detail their open-access plan (Science). This in-depth article from Nov 2018 discusses “Plan S,” a European initiative to make all scientific research open-access (OA)—a fundamental change in the way science has traditionally been disseminated. Naturally, this has leading journals concerned, since paywall fees represent a large portion of their income. Some funding agencies may not even consider a paper if OA is not provided. One argument for OA is that science belongs to everyone, and stakeholders who fund it with their taxes should not have to pay additional fees to see the results. Journals argue that they provide added value with summaries and reviews, and a rigorous peer review system, but their complaints seem self-serving. OA proponents appear to have the stride in this race.

Time to break academic publishing’s stranglehold on research (New Scientist). This article, also from November, explains some of the enthusiasm behind open access. They want to stop the evil, greedy publishers who are keeping your science from you.

Here is a trivia question for you: what is the most profitable business in the world? You might think oil, or maybe banking. You would be wrong. The answer is academic publishing. Its profit margins are vast, reportedly in the region of 40 per cent.

The reason it is so lucrative is because most of the costs of its content is picked up by taxpayers. Publicly funded researchers do the work, write it up and judge its merits. And yet the resulting intellectual property ends up in the hands of the publishers. To rub salt into the wound they then sell it via exorbitant subscriptions and paywalls, often paid for by taxpayers too.

Now that they have you up in arms in class warfare, New Scientist’s editors feel obliged to explain the “whiff of hypocrisy” you may smell, since they also charge for their magazine. “But good journalism does not come free,” the capitalists explain sheepishly in parens. Nevertheless, “The academic publishing business model is indefensible,” they go on to say. “Practically everybody – even the companies that profit from it – acknowledges that it has to change.”

Revolutions often go to radical extremes. In the midst of the publishing revolution, we must remember that intellectual property creators have rights. For instance, musicians and filmmakers have suffered miserably because of online access. Thieves will upload whole movies, books or musical works without a qualm, leaving creators at a huge loss of expected revenue. This is unethical; a free society depends on copyrights. Not everything belongs to everybody. When that becomes the rule, nobody has the incentive to create.

Science publishing is more complicated, because there are multiple stakeholders. Governments have interest in funding research for reasons of prestige, national security, or prosperity. Labs and institutions are often the recipients of funds, delivering research results, but have bills to pay as well. Scientific journals and magazines have long been the primary distributors of research knowledge. Journals may make a lot of money, but we must not fall into the trap of jealousy. Socialists breed contempt for the rich; being rich is not evil, if wealth is earned with integrity. At CEH, we’re not so much concerned with how much money they make, but their bias.

So who owns science? The government doesn’t; their money is taxpayer money. Do taxpayers own science? Much of it, yes, but they own it through electing representatives who are expected to use judgment and knowledge to make wise decisions about spending priorities. It’s simplistic for citizens to demand all research as their property just because part of their taxes pay for it. There are national security risks in that attitude; some research has dual use, legitimate for the military but dangerous in the public domain. It’s also unfair to publishing companies for citizens to force them out of business on that argument. What about their writers who organize, analyze, and editorialize on recent findings? What about their layout artists, and expenses such as office space and equipment? Destroy one business, and you often damage whole communities who service their needs.

We don’t begrudge journals, magazines and institutions for being in business and making a profit; we just demand changes to their anti-conservative, anti-design, pro-Darwin bias. If they really reported fairly on intelligent design and used critical reasoning about evolutionary claims, that would be great. We also demand fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Simultaneously, the public has the right to know about some of the research they paid for with their tax dollars. Here’s a compromise: offer both Open Access and dressed-up publishing of research, and present it fairly, with a variety of viewpoints. Many people are probably not going to read raw scientific papers. Journalists have a gift of writing for the public and for the scientific community as well. They can do this online and for print, supported by subscriptions, advertising and foundations. Get the government out of private business, but let the public have their due. And demand the government stop funding unethical research (like fetal tissue or human cloning), and reduce wasteful research (like the effect of Swedish massage on rabbits). If people really want to know how fast crawfish run on treadmills, they can experiment at home.

As with so many human activities, a free market is best. That needs to include a free market of ideas (see FreeScience.today).

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