Whither scientific publishing ?

I come back to one of my favorite subjects, prompted by a recent comment asking for my opinion on the proposed boycott of Elsevier, a company publishing a number of scientific journals. In the eyes of many, some of Elsevier’s practices are incompatible with the ultimate goal of achieving the widest dissemination of scientific information and progress — a goal that many a scientist hold so vital that even in a market economy, no acceptable business model for scientific publishing should sacrifice it to the altar of profit.

I am not going to weigh in on the proposed boycott in this post, not because I think it is without merit and/or the entire situation is not worth examining, but because I cannot help thinking of it simply as yet another manifestation of the obsolescence and unsustainability of the current system by which scientific manuscripts are published. Such a system is a relic of a time past, a time when there was no internet, no ArXiv, publishing meant printed press, when most of the scientific activity took place in just a handful of countries, and when everything happened on a much longer time scale than it does today.

Thus, I am going to try to articulate in this post how I believe that things could be done differently, essentially by greatly simplifying and streamlining the publication process, and de-emphasizing peer review. My scheme is consistent with the philosophy of ascribing much greater weight to the actual citation record of a manuscript, rather than on where it is published, in order to assess its impact.

The starting point consists of asking the question: can one think of a new approach to scientific publishing, one fully embracing new technologies while retaining those aspects of the current one deemed desirable ? Is it possible to design a system

  • in which authors may quickly and efficiently disseminate the results of their work, by means of electronic manuscripts easily retrievable, freely accessible and readable by anyone wishing to do so, anywhere on this planet (I shall settle for no less);
  • allowing for straightforward, unambiguous and readily documentable citation of anyone’s work;
  • still compatible with the existence of scientific journals, competing for publication of especially important manuscripts, in turn conferring prestige to manuscripts selected for publication ?
  • I am going to describe below a possible scheme that might accomplish all of the above. As usual, mine is simply a very modest, amateurish contribution — I am sure that much better schemes can be devised but I think it is high time for an open debate to take place, within our community, aimed at improving the current, clumsy, inefficient and outdated system of scientific publication.
    I have already expounded some of my views on this subject in an old post.


    What constitutes a “publication” ?
    This day and age, as soon as an article, a piece of writing, is posted on the internet in some legitimate fashion [0], then it should be regarded as “published”. So, in principle every scientist could have something like a personal internet archive and upload all of her papers in there. In practice, it seems to make more sense to have a single repository, like ArXiv, where all papers can be uploaded, assigned a unique identifier, and permanently stored. Manuscripts archived in this way become part of the public record, until they are withdrawn by the author(s).
    Once the manuscript is uploaded, the authors may forget about it and move on. For the purpose of evaluating scholarly productivity, that should count as a full-fledge “publication”.
    Yes, no peer review needed at this stage.

    Obviously, not all papers are the same. A lot of them are irrelevant, plainly wrong and sometimes downright wacky (not mine, of course — mine are all amazing). And even without going to such extremes, only a small fraction of all published articles elicit significant interest and have impact in their fields. Traditionally, the goal of peer review has been precisely that of assessing not so much the correctness, as much as the potential impact of a manuscript.
    However, I think that a more reliable assessment of the intrinsic value of one’s contribution is furnished by the number of citations (and possibly, in the case of an electronic repository, number of downloads and “hits”) that it garners, rather than on the supposed vetting conferred to it by the process of peer review and formal publication on some high profile venue.
    Imperfect a criterion as it is (like any criterion in this business), I do believe the number of citations to be the most objective and reliable indicator of the value of a piece of work, in the long run. Positive reviews, as well as formal publication on an official journal, should be the consequence rather than the cause of a large number of cites.

    A manuscript can already be cited by means of its repository identifier, before it is formally published on a regular journal. I would take that one step further, and make that the only way in which manuscripts can be cited, ever. In other words, while at present an article uploaded on, say, ArXiv, is generally also concurrently submitted for publication in a regular journal, and after appearing in press it is cited from then on as a contribution to that specific journal (i.e., with volume and page numbers), in my alternate model it would continue to be cited through its archive identifier, regardless of its having been “formally” published elsewhere.
    Its subsequent “formal” publication in an actual journal would simply count as a mark of distinction.

    The role of journals

    What would be then the role of scientific journals, in the new publishing world ? Would they not be essentially useless, having been deprived of their very raison d’etre, namely that of publishing scientific content that would otherwise never see the light, and thus not receive the proper recognition ?

    I do not think so.
    In fact, I think it can be reasonably argued that, following the introduction and the success of ArXiv, the primary function of scientific journals has largely turned into that of offering readers a selection of articles, deemed particularly interesting and worthwhile. In other words, I see the task of the editor of a journal being more and more that of cherry picking, i.e., identifying, out of the many contributions uploaded daily on the public repositories, those that are likely to spur debate, that are controversial, or in any case that will be highly cited (which is ultimately what determines the impact factor (IF), and therefore the prestige of a journal) [1]. Journals already do compete with one another, in many respects, in order to secure the “hottest” manuscripts.

    How would an editor go about picking an article for inclusion in an issue of her own journal ? A conservative approach would be that of simply waiting and seeing how many cites archived contributions garner in some short time following their initial upload. Of course, editors of other journals may be bolder, more aggressive, and attempt to identify early on such articles, in order to snatch them away from the competition. They could do that by having a few respected, trusted scientists examine an uploaded manuscript and offer an assessment on its predicted impact — essentially peer review, but with the important difference that it would not necessarily require the involvement of the authors [2].
    Since the aim of an editor is that of raising the journal’s IF, it is doubtful that archived manuscript receiving a decent number of citations would languish on the archives, without being picked up by a single respectable journal.

    How would journals make money ?

    Now, let us suppose that an article originally published as explained above, i.e., uploaded in the public repository, were to be accepted for publication on some journal.
    First of all, that would not have any consequence whatsoever on the accessibility of the manuscript, which would have to remain open and free. The only change would be that, upon clicking the link to the manuscript file in the public repository, the reader would be redirected to the journal’s page with the corresponding article, still accessible for free. I come back to this point below.

    It is clear what benefits authors derive from publication of their work on a journal — the same that they derive now. Publication on a prestigious journal constitutes an endorsement of one’s work, all the more significant the more influential the journal. For scientists, both in and outside academia, journal publications are normally regarded as an important indicator of their progress, of the success of their research activity, as well as of the general appreciation on the part of the community of the quality of their scientific production. I think very few would take issue with the contention that, while the evaluation of the overall activity of a scientist is not limited to paper counting, publications on peer-reviewed scientific journal is one of the most important items featured on someone’s report.
    As I mentioned above, articles would be cited by means of their original repository identifier. However, information concerning their subsequent journal publication could easily be included, on a CV or annual activity report.

    The real question, however, is: what would be the source(s) of revenues for journals, clearly needed in order to make the system financially sustainable ? How can a journal make money if published content is not restricted to subscribers ? I can think of two ways:

  • Publication charges. If journals went online only, I believe that publications expenses could be significantly reduced compared to what they are now. At that point, maybe publication charges could be brought down to a level where the vast majority of authors would not object paying.
  • Advertising. I tend to take a rather pragmatic view of this, and personally have no problem with placing ads on the same page where a published article is posted, on the site of a journal. Most of us have no problem going through a 30-second advertisement before watching some YouTube video (heck, we even put up with half screen worth of ads while watching soccer on the computer), I am quite confident that a couple pop-up and/or a short video would be more than tolerable.
    Perhaps there are other ideas out there, but I would bet that the above is not so far fetched.


    [0] Legitimacy involves, and is not limited to the following: 1) the site can be identified, i.e., an organization and/or a real person with first and last names takes full responsibility for what is posted 2) if content is altered, a detailed record of changes is kept, and previous versions of the same document remain available for inspection 3) documents can be retrieved by a search engine 4) the site is permanent, i.e., it is not subjected to removal or major modifications without proper advance notice.

    [1] Of course, that already is in part the job of editors — witness the e-mails that we receive from them, suggesting that we consider submitting to their journal the manuscript that we recently uploaded on ArXiv.

    [2] Obviously, it would be perfectly reasonable for an editor to contact an author and notify her that her manuscript is being considered for publication on the journal, forward to her comments made anonymously by referees selected by the editor and request her consideration of their comments or suggestions for improvement of the manuscript, should she be interested in publishing her article on the journal. Also, an author could submit a contribution to the attention of the editor of a prestigious journal and request her consideration of that contribution for publication.
    However, in all of these cases the paper would be considered “published”, readable and citable regardless of the Editor’s decision, i.e., journal publication would be optional, as far dissemination of scientific content goes.
    I believe that in such a setting, pressure on everyone — authors, referees and editors would be greatly alleviated, with obvious benefits for everyone’s coronaries.

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    14 Responses to “Whither scientific publishing ?”

    1. mareserinitatis Says:

      Unfortunately, your whole assumption is that journals are there to further the cause of science (i.e. dissemination of information). They are there to make money, and they make more money by holding science for ransom than any ads will ever pay.

      Not that I’m disagreeing with you, but your priorities are obviously not that of a capitalist shareholder.

    2. Massimo Says:

      But is it impossible to make money in other ways, e.g., through advertising or publication charges ? I mean, Google seems to be making plenty of money and they are in the business of providing information, not withdrawing and/or charging for it…

    3. Isotopic Says:

      There is already advertising on the websites of some journals, adjacent to articles. The HTML versions of papers published in Elsevier journals on ScienceDirect – at least those journals that I frequent – have advertisements that (annoyingly) follow you around on the page.

      • Massimo Says:

        I choose to put up with thirty-second ads for just about any content on European newspapers sites, and most of it is not even stuff I particularly care about… I would be surely inclined to accept it if it was the price to pay for free access to scientific content…

    4. Isotopic Says:

      The problem isn’t with being able to sit through an ad, but that the revenue from advertising is driven by the number of views or clickthroughs. You’re then going to have a system where the ability of a publisher to make money is then tied to how popular a paper/journal/discipline is. You don’t want a system where a scientific discipline is starved for somewhere to publish because it’s either 1) Not sexy or 2) Small. Citation abundance varies considerably from discipline to discipline, which would ultimately translate into variable dollars for publications.

      Obviously that would be a bit extreme, perhaps a system where advertising was only a (small?) part of the revenue stream would work ok? Or some sort of revenue sharing?

      • Massimo Says:

        You don’t want a system where a scientific discipline is starved for somewhere to publish because it’s either 1) Not sexy or 2) Small.

        My friend, I have got news for you: that is the way it already is. In my model at least you have the paper on ArXiv and it can still be cited, if no one journal will pick it up — and it if gets cited all the time, eventually some journal will publish it.
        Maybe there is no room for all the, say, physics journals that exist nowadays, but I am afraid that they are doomed no matter what we do.

        No, advertising should instead be the bulk of a journal’s revenue, in order to keep publication charges down.

        • Isotopic Says:

          Is that really true? With journal bundling by the big players, I thougth that the costs were spread among disciplines.

          I have colleagues that edit relatively small journals, put out by their professional society, that survive because of subscription revenue, but I’m sure wouldn’t if they were supported by ad-revenue. These play an important part in the ecosystem of science and it would be a travesty if they were put down.

          I have a hard-time seeing how ad-revenue only (or bulk) wouldn’t evolve into a two-tier system. Everyone could shove whatever they liked into an ArXiv-like repository, but the only journals that would survive would be those like Nature or Science. While that landscape for physics might be acceptable, page-views and click-throughs will be fundamentally different between disciplines, simply by the nature of how they use the literature (analagous to the discipline-specific distributions of h-indices). Some otherwise worthy journals in disciplines such as mathematics and paleontology would just die.

          If one is willing to treat “journals” like glossy magazines -consumable and of no real consequence- that’s fine, but otherwise consigning science publishing to the cut-and-thrust of market forces is not where I would like to see it go.

          Anyways, your proposal is very though provoking, thanks for bringing it up. I’m not completely convinced my arguments are correct, but surely they can’t be too far off(?).

        • Massimo Says:

          With journal bundling by the big players, I thought that the costs were spread among disciplines.

          In physics I doubt if this is an issue, as most important journals are published by professional societies.

          Everyone could shove whatever they liked into an ArXiv-like repository, but the only journals that would survive would be those like Nature or Science.

          Well, but the current state of affairs seems to contradict this argument. Everyone can “shove whatever” on ArXiv, but some preprints are read (and cited — I am sorry but I need to insist on this aspect), other ignored. And we have many more journals in physics than just Science and Nature. Who knows, maybe my model would work better for physics than other disciplines but I don’t see what is fundamentally different about physics.

          consigning science publishing to the cut-and-thrust of market forces is not where I would like to see it go.

          … which is why I advocate the diametrically opposite approach of regarding as “published” anything that is uploaded on the archives, and let the number of citations be the real metrics to asses the paper’s worthiness – which is, incidentally, exactly what we are already doing anyway (I’ll take an unpublished preprint cited 100 times any day over a PRL that is never cited), except that we have to go through a long, time-consuming, expensive, aggravating and ultimately useless process of “vetting” by journal publication.
          In my model, journal publication would be essentially only a somewhat more official, a posteriori recognition of the validity of the work (akin to its inclusion in the “Focus” section of Physical Review Letters, for example), but no more than that. Again, citations are what matters in the end, not where the paper is published.

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