Thursday, June 10, 2021

A not so bold proposal for the future of scientific publishing

Around 15 years ago I wrote a blog post about how we could open up more of the scientific process. The particular emphasis that I had in mind was to increase the modularity of the process in order to make it easier to change parts of it without needing a revolution. The idea would be that manuscripts would be posted to preprint servers that could accumulate comments and be revised until they are considered suitable for accreditation as a peer review publication. At the time I also though we could even be more extreme and have all of the lab notebooks open to anyone which I no longer consider to be necessarily useful.

Around 15 years have passed and while I was on point with the direction of travel I was very off the mark in terms of how long it would take us to get there. Quite a lot has happened in the last 15 years with the biggest changes being the rise of open access, preprint servers and social media. PLoS One started as a journal that wanted us to do post-publication peer review. It started with peer reviewed focused on accuracy, wanting then to leverage the magic of internet 2.0 to rank articles by how important they were through likes and active commenting by other scientists. The post-publication peer review aspect was a total failure but the journal was an economic success that led to the great PLoS One Clone Wars with consequences that are still being felt today - just go and see how many new journals your favourite publisher opened this year.

The rise of preprint servers has been the real magic for me. We live in each others scientific past by at least 2 years or so. If you sit down and have a science chat with me I can tell you about all of the work that we are doing which won't be public for some 2 years. If I didn't put our group's papers out as preprints you would be waiting at least 6-12 months to know about them. Preprint servers are a time machine, they move everyone forward in time by 12 months and speed up the exchange of ideas as they are being generated around the globe. If you don't post your manuscripts as preprints you are letting others live in the past and you are missing out on increased visibility of your own research. 

Preprint servers also serve the crucial need to dissociate the act of making a manuscript public from the process of peer review, certification as a peer-reviewed paper and dissemination. This is important because it allows the whole scientific publishing system to innovate. This is needed because we waste too much money and time on a system that is currently not working to serve the authors or readers efficiently. 

So after nearly 15 the updated version of the proposal is almost unchanged:

I no longer think it would be that useful to have lab notebooks freely available to anyone to read. There are parts of research that are too unclear and I suspect that the noise to information ratio would be too high for this to be of value. However, useful datasets that are not yet published could be more readily made available prior to publication. Along these lines, the ideas in the form of funded grant proposals should be disclosed after the funding period has lapsed. As for the flow from manuscript to publication, the main ideas remain and the system already exist to make these more than just ideas. There are already independent peer review systems like Review Commons. Such systems could eventually be paid and could lead to the establishment of professional paid peer reviewers. Such costs would then be deducted from other publishing costs depending on how the accreditation was done. Eventually "traditional" publishing could be replaced by overlay journals, like preLights, whose job would be to identify peer reviewed preprints that are of interest to a certain community.  

Social media for me has been the most surprising change in scientific communication. I didn't expect so many scientists to join online discussions via social media. Then again, I didn't foresee the geekification of society. In many ways social media is already acting as a "publishing" system in the sense of distribution. Most of the articles I read today I find through twitter or Google Scholar recommendations. As we are all limited by the attention we can give, I think one day, instead of complaining about how impact factors distort hiring decisions we will be complaining about how social media biases distort what we think is high value science. 

So finally, what can you do to move things along if you feel it is important ?  If you think we have too many wasteful rounds of peer reviewing across different journals; that the cost of open access publishing is too high or even simply that publicly funded research should be free to read and openly available to mine ? Then the best single thing you can do today is make your manuscripts available via preprint servers.