Hat tip: let’s hear it for the good guys

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A team of good guys band together to take on a rampaging behemoth. 

It sounds like – in fact it is – the plot of the new “Avengers” movie. But it also describes the recent move taken by EMBO Press, Rockefeller University Press, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press to launch Life Science Alliance, a new open-access journal.

Wait, surely not ANOTHER open access journal?! The market’s crowded enough already, isn’t it? Well, actually not as much as you’d think.

Generalising, possibly overmuch, there are two axes to scientific publishing. One concerns how published content gets to readers, and covers the spectrum from open access to paywall-protected; the other concerns how the money generated from publishing is used, and covers the spectrum from community-driven to for-profit (Fig 1A).

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Figure 1: graphical depictions of the publishing landscape. (A) Two main axes for classifying journals. (B) The third axis.

The outside corners of the four quadrants thus roughly correspond to:

1. For-profit, paywall-protected = the bad guys. In it for the money, and boy are they doing well. If in doubt, read Stephen Buranyi’s excoriating account of the birth of the scientific publishing industry HERE. Example? Cell, or basically anything published by Elsevier.

2. For-profit, open access = the pirates. Predatory open access journals that bombard your e-mail address with requests to “Esteemed Professor X” to publish in their new journal which doesn’t remotely address anything you work on. But hey, it’s open access, and open access is automatically a good thing, right? No. Example? Just check the “trash” or “junk” folders in your e-mail account. 

3. Community-driven, paywall-protected = the Samaritans. Yes, you have to pay for access to their content, but those fees then get pumped back into the societies that run them and thereby to the researcher community, and most of them make the content available after a short window anyway. They’re like Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars” – you might initially question whose side they’re on, especially if you’re a bit hung up about open access, but they’re actually one of the good guys. Example? Molecular Biology of the Cell.

4. Community-driven, open access = the saints. If it was Dungeons n’ Dragons they’d be Lawful Good alignment. They’re on the side of the scientists, and the stuff they publish is publicly available. Like anyone who’s Lawful Good in real life though, they can sometime get a bit sanctimonious. Example? eLife, anything from PLoS.

However, just as the organic food lobby has been very good at muddying the waters concerning food quality (e.g. is something that’s been grown “bio” but trucked halfway across a continent really the same as fresh produce from a farmers’ market? Almost certainly not, but supermarkets encourage you to think so), open access is one of those things that’s great in principle but getting trickier in practice. It’s expensive, it’s spawned an entire ecosystem of parasites whose e-mail requests for submissions border on harassment, and while it’s unquestionably a Good Thing it’s starting to feel a bit like 3D cinema. Cinemas like 3D films far more than the average filmgoer does, because they can jack up the ticket prices even if the movie has just been opportunistically converted to 3D in post-production (exhibit A: “The Green Hornet”); publishers seem to feel the same way about open access.

Plus, open access – despite its rectitude, its undoubted justification in terms of taxpayer money – is actually tangential to a lot of young scientists’ needs. If something is published open access it’s nice and puts you in the progressive camp, but it’s done nothing to address the problem that concerns most young scientists whose careers are hanging in the balance: the stranglehold that prestige publishing has over the scientific community (the z axis on the publishing chart, Fig1B) . Prestige publishers are increasingly happy to offer open access options, so you can collude in making their shareholders happy while feeling good about getting your open access membership badge in the post.

In terms of a community-led attack on the prestige-publishing model, no recent event has been as significant as the establishment of the journal eLife. Squarely aimed at breaking the suffocating influence of Cell/Nature/Science (“CNS”) on the research community, and backed from on high by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust, it couldn’t come across as any more heroic if it dressed up as Perseus and started jabbing at three hideous gorgons. Its importance is not limited to the fact that it provides a riposte to the “sour grapes” argument, namely that anyone who doesn’t publish in CNS couldn’t get published there. However, in taking the CNS gorgons on (and TIR wishes it all the best) it will inevitably be judged by impact – blockbuster publications are the monster that Ben Lewin and Cell created, and which CNS now propagate, and which eLife needs to attract in order to be viewed as a viable alternative (despite laudably shunning the Journal Impact Factor as a metric). In the long run, it means that it runs a real risk that it will be the victim of its own success, but with a canny operator like Randy Schekman at the helm it should hopefully avoid that fate.

But what about the non-blockbuster stuff? What about the solid, good quality work that isn’t the breakthrough of the century? There’s actually far more of this kind of research than breakthroughs, as “breakthroughs” usually describe either (a) genuinely sensational results, or, more usually, (b) good quality work from a currently or perpetually fashionable field. When even nematode work isn’t considered sufficiently mainstream (or should that be mainline?) for Impact Factor addicts in some circles, then you know there’s a large pool of material out there.

That’s the niche that Life Science Alliance (LSA) is designed to occupy. And what in a sense makes it potentially so important. Obviously it’s not the only journal that handles this kind of material – it basically also describes almost anything that’s not CNS – but it’s the first, or arguably the second, to make this its raison d’etre. PLoS ONE also publishes articles regardless of significance, but here it often results in a bit of uncertainty – when you read a PLoS ONE article there’s often a sense that either the authors just wanted to get it out so they could move on, or (not mutually exclusive) it got rejected from one of the other PLoS journals or somewhere else first. By setting itself up as a first-choice, first-destination home for work that’s simply high-quality, high utility, and high value, LSA has arguably the purest motives of the lot. This is what science should be.

Of course, it might not work out. It might not catch on, or it might not live up to its promise. But if there’s one thing that almost all scientists can agree on, it’s that the means of publishing scientific research has got to be reformed. Open access addresses one issue – should the taxpayer have free access to taxpayer-funded research? Prestige – and the way prestige publishing has become a proxy for scientific merit – is the other big question, and the one that more directly impacts scientists’ careers. 

The Salem witch trials, unforgettably portrayed by Arthur Miller in “The Crucible”, ultimately ended when people refused to collaborate any more and imperil innocent people in order to save their own lives. We as scientists are contributing to our own persecution – parasitised by a for-profit publishing industry and our merit now seemingly determined by our journal choice – by continuing to follow a system that does not at its heart place good quality science front and centre. LSA does. Give it a chance.

4 thoughts on “Hat tip: let’s hear it for the good guys

  1. Nice summary. I was disheartened to hear a lot of people crying “not another journal!” and “we don’t need another journal!” in response to LSA. I generally feel that way (iScience, anyone?), but not when it comes to, as you say, the good guys. Hope LSA works out.

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    1. Agreed. The more I think about the this topic, the more I feel that the whole “blockbuster” publication model is outdated, inasmuch as it is probably more harmful than helpful to young scientists. If LSA can become a viable first-choice destination, that’d be fantastic. Well, let’s see…

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  2. thanks for the nice analysis, Brooke:
    1) On ‘blockbuster’: In my view, there will always be stratification in science outputs (even if a hypothetical post journal world). The problem is that misused – and often flawed – metrics and journal rankings can be weaponized to torpedo a system that ought to be built on openness, transparency, trust and collaboration.
    It is true that certain journals milk the system by extending must have brands ever more, but ultimately this is their good right in a free market, if the clientele laps it up.
    2) A small kink in the armour of your Perseus is that this otherwise valiant knight lives on funding taken from research budgets, which is fine, but misleads some into thinking that OA can work beautifully at highly selective journal for very little money. On the other hand, you note that OA is expensive: it is true that there is no reason to claim (as some do) that it is cheaper than a similar quality subscription journal (leaving aside modest savings on marketing to libraries). But it is equally true that it only feel expensive bec. currently the costs come out of research budgets.
    3) I suppose that in your flamboyant classification scheme ‘hybrid journals’ such as the EMBO Journal (COI: which I am associated with) would map as ‘aspirational saints’ i.e. poised for OA but constrained by real world market constraints

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    1. Oo-er, I’m not sure if a “flamboyant” scheme can ever be a particularly helpful one…but that was partly the reason for emphasising what occupies the far corners of each quadrant, rather than the middle ground in-between (that’d be an interesting piece of cartography, but too lengthy for purpose I suspect).

      1) Agree, though somewhat reluctantly. The problem, I think, is that good science and mainstream science are two different things (though they can of course overlap), and that the hegemony that “crown” experimental systems such as mice, human cells enjoy is a primary driver of stratification at present. The Drubin editorial is bang on the money in this respect. It’s striking how much more diverse the research landscape used to be, though hopefully CRISPR and other techniques will bring other organisms back into research focus.

      2) Agree completely. The struggles PLoS had before PLoS ONE took off have been conveniently forgotten. I’m not familiar enough with the economics of publishing and open access to incriminate myself further, but in any case a main thrust of the above was that OA, despite its feel good factor, is not going to affect young scientists’ careers one way or the other. Prestige publishing, and the metrics that – as you note – are too easily distorted for unscientific ends, is the real problem.

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