Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On open-access and peer review

We've covered this topic often on both this blog and on the podcast but it may be time to revisit it one more time. Open access (OA) publishing has won the heart of most scientists. By definition our work only gains value by sharing, and sharing is easier when it's free. As an author of papers, I can also retain copyrights over my own work so that I am free to do whatever I please with it, including reproducing it in my thesis or posting it on my blog. I mean what's not to love. Well some people actually oppose it, obviously people who have a vested interest in the multi-million dollar publishing business. PLOS, one of the pioneers in open-access, has basically proven that not only can the idea work, but it can make for a high profile journal. But with the introduction of PLOS-ONE it may have shown its Achilles' heel. See the opponents of open-access always pointed out that openness would destroy peer review. Obviously a ridiculous assertion, since peer review is already open and free. But with PLOS ONE peer review was changed from outside "random" assigned expert to "in-house" academic editors. In fact I strongly suspect that Nature's precedings, was built to fail, an exercise in futility, to show how openness equals lack of peer review and craptacular creationist papers published. And while the opponents of open access like PRISM might have an axe to grind, they also make a good point, what is peer review, and who oversees peer reviewers?

First lets check out what they say one their site: what's at risk?

  • undermining the peer review process by compromising the viability of non-profit and commercial journals that manage and fund it;

  • opening the door to scientific censorship in the form of selective additions to or omissions from the scientific record;

  • subjecting the scientific record to the uncertainty that comes with changing federal budget priorities and bureaucratic meddling with definitive versions; and

  • introducing duplication and inefficiencies that will divert resources that would otherwise be dedicated to research.
The first point could have been better formulated. But what I think they are trying to say is "hold-on you guys can't police yourself, you need publishers to manage peer review". I mean they don't actually fund peer review since it's free but they do manage it. I don't see why editors of OA journals can't do the same, but it does raise the need for a peer-review watchdog (more on that later)

The second point is even more asinine. They're saying "Hold-on you can't choose what can and cannot be published, that's censorship, let corporations do that job". This is ironic since the purpose of journals like PLOS ONE is to let people publish based on the quality of the science not the importance of the findings. Importance is subjective, and often Nobel winning discoveries like PCR or antibodies were rejected from publication.

The third argument is also flawed because funding shouldn't affect OA journals, they are run by the publication costs defrayed by the authors. In fact one could argue that traditional private publishing is at the mercy of investors, stock market crashes and economic conditions.

Finally duplications could actually be a problem, especially for journals like PLOS ONE. If papers are not discriminated upon the basis of importance, very small incremental findings could be published which do not really lead the field forward. That being said, I would rather have more information than less. In fact if information is freely available, perhaps you would be less likely to unknowingly duplicate someone's work that was published in an obscure journal to which your institution doesn't have access.

Then what's the answer?:

Well one big step in the right direction was the creation of BPR3 an acronym coined by none other than Kevin Z (of bayblab podcast fame). Bloggers for peer review reporting aims to overview the peer review process, and check out their take on PLOS ONE. Ultimately we need some kind of watchdog, a "peer-review watch", and that it could be born in a blog just shows you the power of web 2.0 and openness.

In the mean time, why not check out this spoof of PRISM (the axis of evil publishers), called PISD (I think it is pronounced [piss]-t):
"We don't believe it's a publisher's place to make the value judgment that dissemination of scientific information is a greater social good than the increase in capital associated with charging higher subscription rates. That judgment should be made by politicians, ethicists, economists, and other valuable members of society. If you would like to know more, we suggest you consult review articles on the theory of utility or the laws of supply and demand. If your institution doesn’t provide access to such articles, we'll be happy to sell them to you at a reasonable price."


Anonymous said...

I agree with you AC, that dissemination of scientific knowledge is a top priority, even if some journals don't find the discoveries to be "important" enough. However, I may be old school, but I do see some benefit to the larger publishing groups/journals like Nature, Cancer Research, etc. One of the main benefits, in my mind, is the establishment of research societies (for example, the Society for the Study of Reproduction) which are often associated with big name journals, and bring together top scientists working in a particular field. I've attended the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction - "Biology of Reproduction" is the journal associated with this group of scientists. More recently I was able to attend a specialized training conference sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research (home to top notch cancer journals like Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer Research, Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, the list goes on). I have considered these opportunities to be invaluable learning experiences, and an excellent forum for meeting other scientists in the field and sharing ideas, establishing collaborations, etc. I'm all for sharing knowledge, and I'm not against open-access journals, but I don't think we should do away with the large publishing groups who sponsor and organize some of the best forums for learning and sharing ideas.
-Big Red

Bayman said...

Big Red makes a good point - self-organized societies of scientists with a common interest can be very valuable, especially in helping to raise capital and support for things like conferences, and in bringing the field to the attention of society at large.

Many journals are still associated with societies, indeed many journals were formed by societies as their vehicle to communicate findings, outside of conferences.

However, the new open publishing movement doesn't preclude scientific societies. In fact, it makes it even easier for scientists within the society societies to communicate their findings. Societies no longer need to rely on print media to communicate, and therefore can greatly reduce the overhead and bureaucracy needed to publish findings....basically, it's now a do-it-yourself process with a minimal need for organizing structures. Ultimately this is better for science and society, as scientists - and potentially even the greater public - can make decisions that best serve science, rather than the self-interest of bureaucrats.

So modern information technology makes it possible to eliminate many of the middle-men needed for classical print publishing. That's why they're scared and forming lobby groups like PRISM who can do nothing more than babble a bunch of rhetorical bureaucratic jibberish about "costs", "uncertainty", "budget priorities", "inefficiencies" and "compromising viability" in an effort to justify their existence.

Tough shit. Put out or get out. That is, show your services are valuable to science in the modern technological context or be prepared to find another job. Just stop babbling...there's nothing uglier than the death of a bureaucrat.

Oh yeah and BTW AC, good call on Nature preceedings being designed to fail - I totally agree, had the same thought. I think it's Nature's effort to sandbag open publishing. Scientists and open publishing supporters should be crying bloody murder on this. I suggest a boycott of Nature preceedings. Hell maybe even the rest of Nature journals...

Anonymous said...

(I am a product manager for Nature Precedings.) I have commented more fully on Precedings in another entry on this site, however, I wanted to emphasize that Nature Precedings is a pre-print server (like ArXiv) and that it is grounded on the idea that was based on the idea that scientists' work "only gains value by sharing, and sharing is easier when it's free."

On Precedings, all content is freely available. Authors retain copyright over their work (everything is licensed under the CC-2.5 attribution license) and one is free to reproduce it anywhere one wishes (with attribution if it's not your own work).

We've also gotten some incredibly high quality submissions (some of which have later been published in Nature's own journals).

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