The future of scientific publishing

28 Mar

Last night, the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, SRUK, hosted an event discussing the past, present and future of scientific publishing (event details). One thing that was nice about this discussion, compared to previous ones I’ve attended in London, was the number of practising academics in the room. Often, academics are excluded from the discussions about scholarly publishing, which is a bit odd when you know, they’re the ones who actually need the services that publishers etc. provide.

Anyway, what did we all discuss?

Three great and varied speakers formed our menu tonight. For starters, we had Cameron Neylon, ex-scientista, and now the Advocacy Director for the megajournal PLOS. The main course consisted of Eva Amsen, also an ex-scientist, current epic science communicator and Outreach Manager for F1000Research. Dessert was the experimental Prof. Juan Aréchega, Professor of Cellular Biology at the University of Basque County, Spain, and Editor for the International Journal of Developmental Biology (note: not a predatory journal). I’ll try and summarise some of their key points.

Neylon kicked off with what he assures us was a fully rehearsed discussion about the current issues and progress of publishing in a digital world. He reminded us that there are many different types of access – just making an article open access these days isn’t enough; we have to consider the language that people read this in, and accessibility in terms of complexity. As such, we’re entering an age now where science needs to be, and should be, communicated in a manner that has the greatest and broadest public good, or ‘impact’.

One of the greatest issues we’re currently facing is that the publishing models we have, and the incentives which drive research are adequate for a digital world. We now live in a time when information can be communicated rapidly and cheaply, but publishing is still for the large part stuck somewhere in the mid-20th century. In terms of assessment, we’re still looking at this the wrong way too – it’s often a case that where you publish is more important than what you publish, which to me makes absolutely no sense at all, apart from being really lazy.

How do we get past these issues? Well, as a community we need to find a way to align the incentives and needs of researchers (e.g., for career progression) with the incentives to make research as broadly accessible as possible for everyone. Because at the present, there is a distinct mis-match here, and it’s a major fault within academia and publishing. This is especially so, as we’re beginning to be able to ask increasingly sophisticated questions about how our research is used – the pathways to impact; it’s not possible to measure anything from the magnitude of online discussions to the use of research in real-world applications.

Next up, Eva gave an account of how F1000 is pushing the boundaries of the current publishing models by allowing fast publication combined with post-publication peer review. She gave a nice historical overview of publishing, pointing out that since the first publication in 1665, and the first instance of peer review as we currently know it in the mid-20th Century, nothing much has changed about how we publish until recently. Journals used to act as the gatekeepers for science, when research was published in paper issues, and this is what made it restrictive – page limits. Now though, we don’t have those limits thanks to the online world, but still these limits are often still imposed.

Eva made a strong case for transparency too – all F1000 articles are open access, naturally, but so are the reviews. This is great, as it means that no longer can peer review be all ‘bitchy’ or personal, something which I’m learning is quite a frequent occurrence – they have to be strictly about the science, as things should be. As well as this, they can provide a great educational tool for early-career researchers who wish to learn about how to do peer review.

Juan Aréchega finished off the session, with some, let’s say rather interesting perspectives. Importantly, he demolished the idea of impact factors and journal branding as a measure of assessment. However, he seemed to get a bit muddled up by claiming that PLOS was the “Tyrannosaurus rex of predatory publishers”, claiming that their system of peer review, volume of publishing and the amount they charge meant they couldn’t be a legitimate publisher. I really hope he is standing alone with this rather regressive perspective..

Anyway, here’s a storify of the event with a few more details. Overall, it was a great discussion, and nice to see an entirely new audience in London engaging with the issues of academic publishing.

2 Responses to “The future of scientific publishing”

  1. Thecuriousneuron March 28, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    Thank you for this post of yesterday´s SRUK event. I believe that the Science Community needs to set free from counting the number of published papers and concentrate on nurturing good quality research. Research that solves problems that moves their field forward.

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