On BioScience and Life and Such

The Likes of Blog Publishing (Open Access Day 08 entry)

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2008 at 5:03 am


post to news.thinkgene.com

This post is my entry for Open Access Day 2008. It is about blogging, peer-review publishing, open access, elitism, prejudice and exclusion.

I had this dream: publishing directly on the web mixed with interactive comments to individual publications was to replace traditional peer-reviewed publishing in scientific journals. I set up SciPhu.com to achieve this. The core idea was (and still is) that any publication would remain fluid in its format and content since communication with referees was continuous and interactive. By letting the publication evolve in this way it should asymptote towards perfect.

Inspiration of how a series of comments can serve to paint the whole picture, I took from posts (and their comment-threads) like Anna Koushnir’s post on female scientists (where the comments are sometimes borderline harassment, but the comments taken together as a whole, nails the relevant issues, I think) and Olivia Judson’s post “The monster is back” (I could have taken any post with more than say -10- comments)……

I realize now that I was a bit naive in believing this could completely replace a system that has worked so well for so long. The system has after all allowed the scientific community to retain an unsurpassed credibility, worldwide.

But……..I am not accepting defeat just yet, because traditional peer-review publishing has it’s problems.

Firstly, most articles published are not open access. That means that if you need a scientific article and you do not work in an institution that has paid a large amount of money for subscription to the given journal (or you have a private subscription) you will not be able to access it (you can pay for individual articles, but that will become very expensive over time). In contrast, blog publishing would be free and accessible to all. The cost of publishing on a blog is very low indeed. It does not need printing and it will not need conventional employees. Editors and peer-reviewers (those who comment) would all be doing work on a volunteer basis. Consequently, no need to charge the readers,…….- at least not for scientific use (commercial use could potentially have a different set of rules).

Secondly, traditional paper-publishing is painstakingly slow and, compared to web-publishing, extremely inefficient. Blogs and scientific news-sites can publish in a matter of minutes and provide continuous updates (and corrections) on almost any topic. Also, web-publishing allows you to track your readers in an unprecedented way, – and most importantly, it provides a feedback channel for them. This feedback I think is essential in the next era of publishing. It does however, need some structure. The commenting anarchy of today will not suffice.

Thirdly, – the complete lack of such anarchy, has been one the strengths of the traditional peer-review model. But, to such an extent has peer-review been controlled that it has become the opposite of anarchy, namely dictatorship. Reviewers are handpicked by the publishers, creating potential old boy networks, with the journal editors as presidents. To add to this, reviewers are usually anonymous, potentially masking any conflicts of interest, be it financial, work-related or personal. In addition editors and peer reviewers tend to have agenda’s different to those who submit their papers. Thus, the traditional system does not serve to get as much quality scientific information out as possible, – this is contrary to the intentions. Below, I’ll quote from a discussion I had with (editor) T Ryan Gregory, to illustrate elitism, prejudice and exclusion, as examples of editor-agendas (comments from this genomicron post):

1. Elitism

My concern is that publish first, comment second represents an easy way around the rigors of review by experts in which publication is dependent on positive reviews and revision. I am all for open discussion, but initiatives started by people who don’t publish much in the peer-reviewed literature or do not themselves review many manuscripts do not really appeal to me because it adds to my sense of concern that this is a backdoor. I am not trying to seem elitist, I am just saying that peer review, for all its problems, is there for a reason. Submitted by T Ryan Gregory on 22 May 2008 – 8:10am.

2. Prejudice

May I ask what your record is in terms of reviewing manuscripts and publishing peer reviewed articles?  Submitted by T Ryan Gregory on 22 May 2008 – 9:00am.

One might also be forgiven for thinking that someone with only a few publications might be looking to skip the hard (but necessary) stage of getting through reviewers. Isn’t it a bit odd to complain about the anonymous nature of peer review while moderating a “review” blog anonymously? Submitted by T Ryan Gregory on 22 May 2008 – 9:00am.

3. Exclusion

Peer review isn’t supposed to be democratic. It is supposed to be done by peers — a set of individuals with highly specific knowledge in a particular field. The democratic part comes only once the paper gets through that filter, when it is made accessible to the entire community. Peer review is a vetting process, not a rating process. Submitted by T Ryan Gregory on 22 May 2008 – 9:42am.

By now I have concluded that SciPhu or similar blog-publishing alternatives is not going to replace traditional publishing, and that other alternatives will have to. Blogs can/will however, still be a valuable addition to traditional publishing, perhaps serving to correct some of the flaws:

“….fact is, at least now, if you come up for review and your citations are all on SciPhu or PLoS, you are going to get clobbered.”

This is very true. What I am saying is that I hope that it will be different in the future. Sciphu is probably not the final solution, but it is a starting point. And hopefully one of many similar initiatives to come. A site like this can be developed into a wiki or it can have staffed (unpaid) experts in given fields as reviewers or it can develop in any other direction. But, and this is important, it should never require fees of any sort from either referees, authors or readers. There are no fees attached to the sciphu site (it doesn’t even have google adds), it’s all non-profit scientific idealism. Submitted by Sciphu (not verified) on 22 May 2008 – 10:21am.

Money and open access, – this is the imperative issue that needs to be sorted out. Development of new publishing methods will most certainly follow. Peer-review publishing is dead, long live peer-review publishing.

Hence I pledge my complete and unrestricted support to any open-access initiative.

Some other views on peer review: nature debate on peer review, Certifying Online Research

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