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What’s wrong with scientific publishing?

by AprilSix Proof

For the past 350 years, the scientific journal has been the shop floor where science is manufactured, packaged, and presented to the public. Ever since the Royal Society printed the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in March 1665, academic publishing has served as the preferred method for transforming results obtained in the lab into principles taught in the classroom.

Scientific journals are still widely seen as the gatekeepers of science, and to many of their readers, their authority is absolute and unquestioned. Peer review, the process whereby experts anonymously monitor and approve each other’s work, remains the so-called ‘gold standard’ for assessing the quality of research. Remove that fundamental principle, so the argument goes, and the central prop of scientific integrity collapses with it.

But for some within the scientific community, publishing is in dire need of a revolution and peer review should be first against the wall when it happens.

At a special anniversary conference on the Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication held at the Royal Society this week, some of the sector’s leading voices came together to express their concerns with the contemporary state of academic publishing, and discuss what changes were longest overdue.

Among the most vocal was Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ and a long-time critic of peer review, who was quoted as describing the process as irrelevant, slow, and a waste of time. With no solid evidence to show that peer review works – and plenty to show that it doesn’t – Smith claimed that it was time to slaughter this sacred cow once and for all.

Following the day’s events from a distance via the notorious broken kaleidoscope of Twitter was not ideal for accurate reporting. Nonetheless, it was enough to provide us lurkers with an insight into some of the fundamental issues that divide the field and all too often go unaired. As Professor Geoffrey Boulton was quoted at the day’s start: it is time to review what parts of the way scholarly publishing is done are retained for their value, and which from sheer habit.

Key among the latter is what Royal Society President Paul Nurse called the laziness of those who judge their colleagues by the journals in which they publish. Much of this academic snobbery arises from the growing use of ‘impact factors’ – an arbitrary metric that gives high-ranking journals the opportunity to gloat about their status while providing little statistically useful information. Professor Stephen Curry of Imperial College London, who has long campaigned against their use, was quoted as asking for funders to impose more incentives on the scientific community to weaken their obsession with these numerical scores.

Given the obsession already exists, it any wonder that many scientists are starting to see scientific publishing as a tool for career progression rather than a method to communicate findings? Such a trend may already be manifesting itself in deeply worrying ways, including the increasingly abstract and siloed nature of many scientific papers, and the decreased number of negative studies that journals see fit to publish.

Another important area of discussion surrounded the responsibility of journals themselves to uphold their reputations as gatekeepers of scientific knowledge. With retraction scandals continuing to rock the community, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of plausible-sounding bogus journals, their standing in the eyes of scientists risks dropping to an all-time low. With many academic institutions growing increasingly concerned about skyrocketing subscription fees – and the inherent absurdity of an economy wherein universities have to pay to read about research they’ve already paid to conduct – pressure is gradually mounting on publishers to change their approach.

Scientific progress depends on transparency, and the ability to ask difficult questions about the rules that govern the world around us. It is heartening to see that same approach being applied to the scientific process itself.

For a more detailed transcription of the day’s events by someone who was actually in attendance, go here.

The Royal Society has also commissioned a series of excellent articles by leading figures in the field, which can be found by searching for #FSCC here and here.

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