Doing Away with “Publish or Perish”

In a past life I was a flak for a Washington-based think tank. Researchers there toiled long hours at desk, facing intense pressure to publish. Other duties included drafting proposals to raise funds for the institute, supervising junior researchers, and trying out their best TED-like talks at conferences. But when it came time for promotions and bonuses, only one thing mattered: getting published in high-ranking journals.

“Publish or perish.” Scientists are supposed to have an open mind and question existing beliefs. But to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of academia, they must abide by this archaic rule. This has given birth to a $25 billion scientific publishing industry that spans the globe.

In other words, “peer review” is mainly about profits, not ideas.

Publishing juggernauts like Elsevier boast 30% profit margins by avoiding the cost of publishing. This is because researchers, funded by government or foundations, give papers to journals for free. Peer reviewers – working scholars drawn from the same pool – vet the papers for free, a kind of indentured servitude whose logic I’ve never been able to explain. The journals then publish the papers, sell them back to universities or think tanks, and then these institutions’ libraries spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on subscriptions annually. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Before the internet, it was difficult to publish and disseminate scientific papers. And it made sense for journals to manage the review process, print the papers, and ship them to subscribers. But today, journals are neither efficient nor effective in disseminating knowledge. For example, they can’t carry the data that the studies were based on. They can’t share revisions, once a paper gets published.

Science is best disseminated online without paywall or delay. This “open access” model makes available online the publisher version of paper immediately for free. The authors also publish the data, which they own. Everyone can read the paper and cite it and use it. It gives the paper wider and deeper exposure it deserves.

In turn, the authors pay an open-access processing fee, which can range up to $3,000. Instead of paying the fee, they can choose to place their papers in an open repository.

As Chris Anderson noted in his 2009 book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, “There’s only one way you can have unlimited shelf space: if that shelf space costs nothing.”

This leaves quality control as journals’ only contribution. Peer review is the sacrosanct process safeguarding the quality of scientific work. But it is far from perfect. Since there are more submissions than reviewers, three or fewer reviewers’ one-time evaluation determines a paper’s fate. Reviewers typically don’t have access to the original data, so their judgment is limited. Anonymity, considered essential for the reviewers to be honest in their critique, is ripe for exploitation. And since reviewers are not paid and receive no credit for their work, papers tend to languish at their hands.

Another problem in scientific publishing is what academics call “impact factor.” If a journal has an impact factor of three, that means in the past two years, papers in the journal were likely to have been cited three times. High impact factor is supposed to represent strong citation rates and therefore higher quality of a journal.

But impact factor says little about individual papers. A recent study found that it’s correlated with higher retraction rates. At worst, impact factor blocks innovation, as researchers obsess over publishing in select journals that typically reject about 95 percent of submissions. Researchers willingly suffer this process because they need that “high impact” journal publication to secure tenure or grants.

Scientists have used peer review and impact factor to hand over a few journals the power to make or break careers.

Open access would end this tyranny. It will direct our attention to the ideas within the study itself, rather than the prestige of the journal. It will enable researchers to share everything from methods and data to revisions. And anyone, even someone in a yurt in Mongolia, will be able to access them as long as they have an internet connection.

Cue critics in tweed jackets, harrumphing that the problem of open-access journals is their poor-quality papers. But as is the case with closed journals, that’s a problem of peer review, not open access. And it can be fixed. For starters, peer review should happen after publication, not before, with reviewers and authors sharing comments and revisions. The reviewers’ names should be made public. They should be paid and get credit for their work. A database comprising their portfolio of reviews could tell us who reviewed which paper for all the papers.

Researchers could publish negative findings, too, so that others don’t slog through the same experiments that yield no results. A negative finding, as any good scientist knows, is often as instructive as a positive one, yet rarely do these results see the light of day. They are like boring poker hands on a televised World Series of Poker.

Some of these reforms are already happening. For example, F1000Research is an online outlet that publishes scholarly papers immediately following basic checks. It then selects reviewers who post their names and affiliations along with their review.

With open peer review, there would be no space for “predatory” journals to scheme off of scientists desperate enough to pay processing fees to lengthen their CVs. The emergence of predatory journals is a symptom of the “publish or perish” disease. We cure it not by doing away with open access but by removing the incentives for scientists to resort to them.

University deans and provosts need to stop thinking that publications in high-impact journals equals prestige. Funders have the power to change this perception. They can request journals to make publicly available the studies they fund, as the Gates Foundation did earlier this year. They can also require that open-access fees be included in the cost for publishing research. University libraries can divert the money they spend on subscriptions to pay for open-access journals’ processing fees.

As truth and science come under withering scrutiny in today’s world, now more than ever we need a model that empowers scientists, not publishers.

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