Digital Publishing Isn't Harming Science, It's Liberating It

It's somewhat appropriate that a complaint from a scientific authority on the decay of scientific publishing should be circulated on the Huffington Post, whose legions of unpaid bloggers gain only exposure for their efforts; how closely it parallels the history of scientists, working without pay, as both content producers and vetters, and what it means for the future. Douglas Fields' comment on scientific publishing (thanks, Simply Statistics!) has the facts right, but the conclusions he draws are contradicted by the very nature of the system he's trying to assault.

The key to it all is the nature of peer review:

A scientific discovery is useless if it is not communicated with authority to the scientific community. For centuries scientists submitted their research findings for publication in scientific journals that were run by the leading scientists with expertise in a specialized field who served as journal editors. The editors evaluated the submission, and if the findings appeared to be important and technically sound, they sought out other scientists around the world with recognized expertise in the area to read the manuscript critically and advise the editor and authors (anonymously) on its suitability for publication.

This process is essential to root out poor science and pseudoscience, and to prevent bogging down the advancement of science by cluttering the literature with contradictory and erroneous findings. The expert peer reviewers evaluated the potential strengths, weaknesses, technical flaws, significance and novelty of the finding, and they suggested the need for further experiments. If the study failed to be accepted for publication by the editor, the authors benefited from the editorial review process, and they revised their work for submission to another journal.
I'm with you, sir! This is the beauty of the peer review system, and the source of it isn't the paper it's printed on; it's the stamp of approval of the editorial board that matters. A quality board is a collection of distinguished members with noteworthy professional experience, combined with their past record of approving meaningful publications.

Recent government-mandated changes in scientific publishing are undermining this critical process of validation in scientific publication.
And now he's lost me. Scientific validation is carried out by the editorial board and its referees -- the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers -- and abetted by a publisher, not controlled by one. The sharp drop in publishing costs from online publishing will only put more control in the hands of the academics who decide what's truly important.

The first change to which he speaks -- a mandate that all papers should be openly accessible for all readers, if their research was funded by federal grants -- affects publishers, not editorial boards. While Fields defends the necessity of the publisher as the producer, editor and disseminator of research, he seems to underplay his own role as the editor-in-chief of a journal, one with the responsibility of seeking out the editorial board, ensuring the quality of the process, and so forth. It's true he doesn't copy-edit or type-set, but these tasks are getting cheaper all the time, and arguably, current publishers don't do that great a job of it.

Fields is also conflating the two major models of Open Access publishing: "Green OA", which says that authors should archive their preprints on public sites (at little cost) is the PubMed approach, and doesn't take away whatever value that copy-editing, type-setting and large-scale printing adds."Gold OA", in which authors pay the publishers for the dissemination of their work, is the model pursued both by top-quality outfits (including CUP) and spamming bottom-feeders. That's why his second point -- that electronic publishing decreases the cost barriers to entry -- is on the mark. But I'm baffled by what follows in his personal testimonial:

Neuron Glia Biology was a scientific journal that was launched in 2004 by me and like-minded scientists to advance scientific research on neuron-glia interactions, and it was published by Cambridge University Press until this year. Neuron Glia Biology provided the opportunity for 1,400 authors to introduce their new research on neuron-glia interactions into the scientific literature, and it helped advance a new field of science, but no longer.
Again, I say: this commentary was published on the Huffington Post. For free. Whether or not it was more visible because of this service, the real stamp of approval comes not from being on this website, but from your peers in the community who judge your work. And those 1,400 authors will not stop writing, the editorial board of Neuron Glia Biology will still believe in their mission, and if it comes to it, finding an online-only home for a format won't change that -- I know it's easier in the mathematical sciences, but biology isn't far behind. The success of the enterprise comes down to the acceptance of the community first.

Vanity journals might be going for a money grab, but so are Elsevier and Nature, both of which are hideously profitable thanks to their monopolistic tactics and reliance on free labour -- not to mention that CUP seems to be doing all right for itself. The pressure from the community is exactly why I doubt that most scholars will fall for bad articles in true vanity journals -- and thanks to the exact peer forces that propel academia, if they do get any attention, the end result will be a humiliated, slightly poorer academic, not the end of the discipline as we know it.

I sympathize with Dr. Fields' anxieties about the state of academic publication today, but I'm far more excited by the premise of technology to keep things fresh than I am about a corporate/government takeover of science. We just have to remember that we're still the ones in charge.

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