The Glacial Pace of Change in Scientific Publishing

I was excited today when my Twitter stream started lighting up with links to an article titled “The Glacial Pace of Scientific Publishing: Why It Hurts Everyone and What We Can Do To Fix It“. Sounded right up my alley.

I was even more excited when I clicked and saw that it was written by Leslie Vosshall, a colleague who not only does amazing work, but has has always been extremely thoughtful when I’ve talked to her about things like scientific publishing.

Her diagnosis of the problem is spot on:

Why is it that in these days of instant information dissemination via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, our scientific publishing system has ground to a medieval, depressing, counterproductive near-halt?

I could not agree more. Consider that most papers submitted to journals last November 26th have still not been published. That’s not a random date – it happens to be the day NASA launched an Atlas rocket carrying the Mars Scientific Laboratory from Cape Canaveral.

While, on Earth, scientific papers were languishing in editorial purgatory and peer review, bouncing back and forth while authors attempted to cater to some reviewer’s whim, maybe went to another journal, and then sat around in production for months while the awaited online publication, an SUV-sized robot made its way to another planet, landed with pinpoint accuracy on the surface and started beaming back pictures.

NASA 1. Publishing 0.

Leslie starts her proposal for how to fix the problem with a crucial observation:

Scientific publishing is an enterprise handled by scientists for scientists, which can be fixed by scientists.

Again, spot on. Far too often scientists treat the myriad problems in scientific publishing as if they are some kind of externally applied force within which we are doomed to eternally labor in some kind of Sisyphian punishment ritual, when in reality, the system is precisely what WE make it.

Having eloquently dissected the problem, and recognized that fixing it is well within our power, I dared to hope that Leslie would come to the same conclusion that I have – that the whole way we go about publishing papers is crazy and needs to be reinvented from the ground up.

Instead she takes the “mend it, don’t end it” approach, proposing a series of fixes – or really a set of guiding aphorisms for authors (calibrate and accept rejection), editors (triage judiciously, seek advice and be decisive) and reviewers (advise honestly and promptly).

The piece is thoughtful and constructive. Everything she says is spot on, and if people listened the process of scientific publishing would be more productive, less unpleasant, and even a bit faster.

But it still would not be fast.

Would it be better if things we published in 3 months instead of 6, 9 or 12? Sure. Would it be better if authors didn’t have to run the gauntlet of reviewer “suggestions” and navigate the whim of a capricious editor to get their work published? Sure. But does a 3 month publishing process, no matter how congenial, really measure up in an era of instant communication?

If you believe as Leslie clearly does, and I do, that delays in publication are bad for science, then you should strive not to minimize them, but to eliminate them.

In a world in which technology makes it possible to share information instantly, there is no need to brook ANY delay in publication. When I have a piece of work from my lab that I am ready to share with my colleagues, I should be able to share it. Immediately. To paraphrase Clay Shirky: Publishing is not a process. Publishing is a button.

The major obstacle to achieving this goal is not efficiency of pre-publication peer review, but that we do it at all.

I am not proposing that we do away with peer assessment and editorial selection. Just that the order of events be reversed – moving from the current “assess then publish” to “publish then assess”. I’ve written before about how I think this could work (see Peer review is f***ed up – let’s fix it), and I won’t repeat those details here. And there are plenty of other people out there with great ideas about how we can retain most of the benefits of peer review while ceasing to use it as a publishing screen. Any of them would be immeasurably better than the system we have now – even with Leslie’s reforms in place. We just have to harness the power scientists have to reshape the way we communicate our science and make it work.

And then we can dare to dream that the time it takes to publish a paper would not just be less than the nine months it takes for a rocket to get to Mars, but less than 14 minutes it takes for photos to make their way back to Earth.

 

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12 Comments

  1. Posted September 1, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Absolutely right from start to finish.

    At times — especially when I read this sort of article — I dare to think that the Open Access war is won, and that we’re now in a post-D-day mopping-up phase.

    If that’s true, then the next item on the agenda is to remake our ridiculous approach to peer-review.

    BTW., PeerJ may well show the way here: there’s an option, when submitting to them, so make the manuscript available instantly on their preprint server, and to have it “promoted” to the main journal after having gone through peer-review. When I sent my stuff there, I will take that option every time.

  2. Posted September 1, 2012 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    One way is to place your ms in ArXiv before submission (quite a few journals accept this) and once published send the final version to ArXiv again. This is how we are dong things in my lab and seems to work really well.

  3. Posted September 1, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I agree, often the delays associated with peer review are ridiculous, but how often do you read a paper and say “I can’t even begin to interpret this without controls X and Y”. It happens to me all the time. If we left when/what to publish solely in the hands of the authors this would get far worse. People would leave out difficult or inconvenient controls or even potentially leave out key (hypothesis disrupting) information. Some rounds of peer review serve to do this quite well. I think it would be better if at the editorial level it was determined whether significance was determined and then reviewers can only be instructed to request control experiments (rather than separate lines of investigation).

  4. Nicolas Renier
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t agree more with both your analysis and the cure proposed. However I don’t agree with one thing that both you and Leslie Vosshall state :

    “Scientific publishing is an enterprise handled by scientists for scientists, which can be fixed by scientists.”

    As it is true that the whole enterprise of publishing is made by scientists, there is another actor where scientists have little leverage upon : the funding agencies. And fundings are given according to published papers and the impact factor of the journal they’re in. And in Biology, we are particularly sensible to that (more than physicists who will post pre-submission manuscripts on ArXiv).

    So as long as funding agencies and career development goes through the publishing records, nothing will ever change. And in that regard, Leslie’s approach that is conservative, is maybe the only thing we could do for now?

  5. Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Speaking of “glacial pace”, how about posting a little more frequently at your fucken blogge?

    I keed, I keed! Fucken Yankees are looking very dodgy right now…

  6. Posted September 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    We need peer review to preserve academic integrity and quality science. Quality science takes time, and quality peer review needs experts willing to devote their time.
    Before you consider “fixing” traditional peer review by moving to “publish then assess”, look what is happening in some public universities as the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry moves in to the university in order to gain credibility and get quick, non-peer-reviewed publications to dupe the public and policy makers:
    http://www.buffalonews.com/editorial-page/from-our-readers/letters-to-the-editor/article1029121.ece

  7. Posted September 2, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    While not by any manner of means suggesting that the the current pace is adequate, it is also worth remembering that the “Gutenberg Revolution” took some 200 years.

    There is a cogent case that journals have outlived their usefulness. Sooner the better …

  8. Adam Etkin
    Posted September 3, 2012 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen this sign in my mechanic’s office and think it applies here:

    We can do the job fast, cheap, or good. Pick two.

    I think this applies here. You want fast (in this case “instant”) publishing? Fine. It will either be expensive, or IMO more likely, wont be very good.

    • Posted September 3, 2012 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      well, right now it’s slow, crappy and expensive

  9. Posted September 3, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Agree with Gonzalo de Polavieja, you get the best of both worlds, instant publishing plus traditional peer review.

    “One way is to place your ms in ArXiv before submission (quite a few journals accept this) and once published send the final version to ArXiv again. This is how we are dong things in my lab and seems to work really well.”

  10. Posted September 4, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “well, right now it’s slow, crappy and expensive”

    You mean the Yankees lineup? Yeah. Robinson Cano needs to hustle out of the fucken box to first base.

  11. Monica Sleumer
    Posted September 20, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    After reading this article and your previous article on the subject, plus the linked articles, a thought struck me:
    While the pace of formal peer review is clearly slow and painful, at the same time a large quantity of informal peer review is being lost.
    How often have you read a paper and thought to yourself: “If I were a reviewer for this paper, I would have pointed out ____.”
    How often have journal club speakers described their own critique of a paper, or compared two interesting papers to each other?
    Right now there is no way to capture that information.
    Perhaps a journal could proceed as follows:
    Authors submit a paper, which is initially flagged as needing peer review.
    The paper is posted publicly and journal members are welcome to provide feedback.
    After some time, the authors post an updated version; the original version and reviews remain available.
    Eventually the editor or moderator can set the paper’s flag from “under review” to “reviewed”, but this has no impact on its availability.
    Journal members retain the ability to comment on papers after the flag is changed, and authors can reply to comments on their own papers.
    Journal members should have the ability to upvote both papers and review comments.
    In terms of the business model, open-access charges could be levied twice, once at initial posting, and once when the paper changes from “under review” to “reviewed”
    As others have suggested, there should be points awarded to reviewers, with extra points for the first few reviews on a paper and extra points for highly-rated reviews and authors of highly-rated papers.
    These points could be exchanged for lower open-access fees levied on the author’s next paper, because they are contributing value to the journal.
    Ideally, the journal should suggest newly posted papers for review each time a member logs into the journal website.
    Journal registration should require a full name, but a pseudonym should be optional to label review comments. Graduate students and postdocs should be allowed to join and become reviewers.
    PLoS Infinity?

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