A disunited front

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Scotland Forever! by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

Almost everybody agrees that the scientific publishing paradigm has to change – but that change might come faster if progressives could agree on what to alter first.

The number of scientists around the world continues to increase. The volume of scientific data that they produce continues to increase. And the corresponding need to provide channels for the critical evaluation and subsequent dissemination of that data presents a challenge, and a stimulating one, for those tasked with facilitating it.

This exponential growth has also focused attention on some of the mind-bending perversities of the scientific publishing process. Certain idiosyncrasies that might have been ok or tolerable when the global scientific community was small are now neither fair, nor practical, nor a productive use of time in today’s research landscape.

With that recognition has come louder and clearer calls for reform of the scientific publishing system, with some movements coming to the fore.

Principally, these are focused on:
– Open Access
– Open Science
– Prestige publishing
– Accelerating research
– Non-profit publishing

So for the innocents out there, what are those movements, and who’s championing them?

1. Open Access
In a nutshell: Science that is taxpayer-funded should be taxpayer-accessible, and free to access.
Most scientific research is publicly funded, but taxpayers (and researchers!) are unable to access much of the research their money has been invested in, as it’s locked behind paywalls that are often maintained by for-profit publishing houses that make extortionate profits. Subscription models give an advantage to institutions with deep pockets, contributing to inequality within academia.
Leading the charge: Public Library of Science (PLoS), Plan S

2. Open Science
In a nutshell: Scientific research should be more transparent.
More transparency will lessen abuse of the peer review process for professional advantage, and counteract the reproducibility crisis that has resulted in a frightening number of papers – often published in highly reputable journals – to be revealed as unreliable and sometimes actually fraudulent. This will not only facilitate scientific communication and exchange, but also minimise wastage of research funds on follow-up studies that are based on unreproducible findings. Publication of raw data and transparent peer review are two hallmarks.
Leading the charge: EMBO Press.

3. Prestige publishing
In a nutshell: Research assessment should be determined by the quality of the work itself, not by where it’s published.
Chiefly directed at breaking the stranglehold that the journals Cell, Nature, and Science have over the scientific community, in a system aided and abetted by the discredited Journal Impact Factor (JIF). Scientific conservatives will assert that papers published in high-JIF journals are inherently better than ones elsewhere; scientific progressives can point out that the JIF is also proportional to the journal retraction rate, which tells you everything about people’s motivation and little about their science.
Leading the charge: the Declaration On Research Assessment (DORA), eLife.

4. Accelerating research
In a nutshell: Scientific publishing is slow, inefficient, and places too many barriers in the way of dissemination.
The current publishing model is a gross waste of scientists’ time. Multiple rounds of peer review squanders reviewers’ time, and usually with diminishing benefits for the manuscript. Formatting and copyediting demands by journals require the expenditure of many hours on trivial tasks. Establishing priority for scientific discoveries can be unfairly slowed by the varying time taken for manuscripts to become published.
Leading the charge: bioRxiv, ASAPbio, Review Commons.

5. Non-profit publishing
In a nutshell: Scientific publishing is expensive, but profits from it should be funnelled back into the community, and not into shareholders’ pockets.
It’s a not-so-secret fact that for-profit scientific publishers get the kind of returns that make cocaine barons stare at their shoes. Proliferating titles that leverage strong brands (e.g. Nature journals, Cell journals), overpriced subscription bundles, and a litigious attitude have increasingly made them seem like a parasite of the scientific ecosystem. Non-profit publishers (exemplified by society journals) seek instead to return publishing profits to the scientific community through funding of workshops, conferences, and fellowships.
Leading the charge: MBoC/ASCB, Company of Biologists (and more)

While each of these five goals represent laudable and entirely worthy endeavours, one problem is that there is limited agreement within the progressive camp on what the most pressing issue is. This is a situation that ultimately facilitates the maintenance of the status quo, as progressives are not speaking with one voice and can be played off against each other.

The lack of coordination between initiatives – all absolutely worthy causes in themselves – can additionally mean that the champions of one cause are not necessarily exemplars when it comes to other issues: the good guys are not necessarily saintly across the whole spectrum.

For example:
– There are plenty of Open Access journals produced by for-profit publishers, often leveraging prestige journal brands (such as Nature Communications).
– Open Science goals can be met by journals delegating yet more work to authors (such as by requiring extra figures with annotated raw data), effectively subcontracting them as unpaid labour, and thereby slowing rather than accelerating research.
– Prestige publishing is sustained not just by slavish and uncritical acclamation of papers published in particular journals, but also by people flocking to subsidiary titles with the same brand name – no-one likes the big publishers or the current system, but few people boycott reviewing or sending their work there.
– Accelerating research doesn’t challenge the hegemony of prestige publishers.
– Many non-profit publishers are not (immediately) Open Access.

In the same way that political revolutions can lose momentum and either collapse or get hijacked when their longer-term strategic aims are not clearly visualised and articulated – a scenario that goes all the way back to the assassination of Julius Caesar – the scientific progressives cannot lose sight of the fact that maintaining the pace of reform is the most important outcome, and this may be best achieved through delaying full accomplishment of single aims. Change will ultimately come about fastest if progressives speak with a unified voice.

Conversely, conservative elements at every link in the chain – scientists, publishers, funding bodies, and more – have most to gain from equivocation and incoherence. It is also worth remembering that what benefits science may not necessarily benefit individual researchers, and vice versa.

With all that in mind, it’s clear that there needs to be more dialogue between the different progressive camps, a manifesto of shared goals, and an agreed course of action. We want, and need, a publishing system that is fair, fast, critical, transparent, and accessible. Such a system will allow scientists to spend time doing what we’re good at, but without compromising the rigour and exacting professional standards that characterise our community. It’s achievable, and probably faster than we think – if we can present a united front.
Thanks to Angela Anderson for input and feedback (and support!) on this posting.

2 thoughts on “A disunited front

  1. A really interesting take on the posting from Prachee Avasthi, president of ASAPbio (shared with permission):
    “There is actually a TON of coordination among all of these different efforts. In fact almost all the boards of all of those journals and organisations have cross-pollination and I’m routinely in meetings with people pushing forward shared goals with many of the other partners. It might look like there is no coordination but it’s actually an entire ecosystem of shared advocacy.

    Funders (like Coalition S) are also really leading the charge by changing incentives to move towards OA and preprint posting, given that it’s such a bigger return on the investment for science to build on itself early and openly.

    Perhaps one nice thing about a distributed model is that we DON’T all agree on what the future should be and so it’s important that we be able to do independent experiments to see what works to inform future efforts. So ultimately many of these entities (PLoS, eLife, ASAPbio, funders etc) are working across MANY of these categories and are coordinated in that way but also between each other…and where they are separate, it has some benefits for experimenting with new models or perhaps cannot be immediately reconciled between conflicting interest/values.”

    In other words, it shows that despite appearances, there actually is a high level of strategic discussion between the movements in this apparently disunited front – but awareness of that coordination hasn’t yet percolated down to the goundlings. Regardless, it’s important for all of us who care about one or more of these issues to make common cause and keep promoting the existence of these initiatives – it’s for our own long-term benefit.


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