Thursday, February 23, 2012

Academic value, jobs and PLoS ONE's mission

Becky Ward from the blog "It Takes 30" just posted a thoughtful comment regarding the Elsevier boycott.  I like the fact that she adds some perspective as a former editor contributing to the ongoing discussion. This follows also from a recent blog post from Michael Eisen regarding academic jobs and impact factors. The tittle very much summarizes his position: "The widely held notion that high-impact publications determine who gets academic jobs, grants and tenure is wrong". Eisen is trying to play down the value of the "glamour" high impact factor magazines and fighting for the success of open access journal. It should be a no-brainer really. Scientific studies are mostly payed for by public money, they are evaluated by unpaid peers and published/read online. There is really no reason why scientific publishing should be behind pay-walls.

Obviously it is never as simple as it might appear at first glance. If putting science online was the only role publishers played I could just put all my work up on this blog. While I write up some results as blog posts I can guarantee you that I would soon be out of job if I only did that. So there must be other roles that scientific publishing plays and even if these roles might be outdated or performed poorly they are needed and must be replaced for us to have a real change in scientific publishing.

The value of scientific publishing

In my view there are 3 main roles that scientific journals are currently playing: filtering, publishing and providing credit. The act of publishing itself is very straightforward and these days could easily cost near zero if the publishers have access to the appropriate software. If publishing itself has benefited greatly with the shift online, filtering and credit are becoming increasingly complex in the online world.

Moving to the digital world created a great attention crash that we are still trying to solve. What great scientific advances happened last year in my field ? What about in unrelated fields that I cannot evaluate myself ?  I often hear that we should be able to read the literature and come up with answers to these questions directly without regard to where the papers where published. However, try to just imagine for a second that there were no journals. If PLoS ONE and its clones get what they are aiming for, this might be on the way. A quick check on Pubmed tells me that 87134 abstracts were made available in the past 30 days. That is something like 2900 abstracts per day ! Which ones of these are relevant for me ? The currently filtering system of tiered journals with increasing rejection rates is flawed but I think it is clear that we cannot do away with it until we have another in place.

Credit attribution
The attribution of credit is also intimately linked to the filtering process. Instead of asking about individual articles or research ideas credit is about giving value to researchers, departments or universities. The current system is flawed because it overvalues the impact/prestige of the journals where the research gets published. Michael Eisen claims that impact factors are not taken into account when researchers are picked for group leader positions but honestly this idea does not ring true to me. From my personal experience of applying for PI positions (more on that later), those that I see getting shortlisted for interviews tend to have papers in high-impact journals. On twitter Eisen replied to this comment by saying "you assume interview are because of papers, whereas i assume they got papers & interviews because work is excellent". So either high impact factor journals are being incorrectly used to evaluate candidates or they are working well to filter excellent work. In either case, if we are to replace the current credit attribution system we need some other system in place.

Article level metrics
So how do we do away with the current focus on impact factors for both filtering and credit attribution? Both of those could be solved if we could focus on evaluating articles instead of the journals. The mission of PLoS ONE was exactly to develop article level metrics that would allow for a post-publication evaluation system. As they claim in their webpage they want "to provide new, meaningful and efficient mechanisms for research assessment". To their credit PLoS has been promoting the idea and making some article level indicator easily accessible but I have yet to see a concrete plan to provide the readers with a filtering/recommendation tool. As much as I love PLoS and try to publish in their journals as much as possible, in this regard PLoS ONE has so far been a failure. If PLoS and other open access publishers want to fight Elsevier and promote open access they have to invest heavily in filtering/recommendation engines. Partner with academic groups and private companies with similar goals (ex. Mendeley ?) if need be. With PLoS ONE they are contributing to the attention crash and making (finally) a profit off of it. It is time to change your tune, stop saying how big PLoS ONE is going to be next year and start staying how you are going to get back on track with your mission of post-publication filtering.  

Without replacing the current filtering and credit attribution roles of traditional journals we wont do away with the need for tiered structure in scientific publishing. We could still have open access tiered systems but the current trend for open access journals appears to be the creation of large journals focused on the idea of post-publication peer review since this is economically viable. However, without filtering systems, PLoS ONE and its many clones can only contribute to the attention crash problem and do not solve the issue of credit attribution. PLoS ONE's mission demands it that they work on filtering/recommendation and I hope that if nothing else they can focus their message, marketing efforts and partnerships on this problem.