The Future of Science Publishing

This post initially appeared on Science Blogs

A little over 300 years ago, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a dry goods seller from Delft in Holland, learned to grind glass into lenses and fashion the best microscopes the world had ever seen. In those days, the idea of being a "scientist" as a profession was ludicrous. Natural philosophy was pastime for nobility or at least those with considerable disposable income. Leeuwenhoek was a successful business man, and in his spare time, he pointed his lenses at pond water (among other things). As Paul de Kruif recounted in his brilliant book Microbe Hunters:

[Leeuwenhoek] peeped into a fantastic sub-visible world of little things, creatures that had lived, had bred, had battled, had died, completely hidden from and unknown to men from the beginning of time. Beasts these were of a kind that ravaged and annihilated whole races of men ten million times larger than they were themselves. Beings these were, more terrible than fire-spitting dragons or hydra-headed monsters. They were silent assassins that murdered babies in warm cradles and kings in sheltered places. It was this invisible, insignificant, but implacable world that Leeuwenhoek had looked into for the first time of all men in all countries.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the discovery of "little animals," the wee beasties from which this blog derives its name, has radically changed the course of humanity. But how did humanity learn of this monumental news? Leeuwenhoek wrote a letter.

Since then, the world of science communication has changed radically. These days, there's an entire industry of academic publishers that have become so fully integrated into the research system that many scientists don't realize that there's any distinction between doing science and publishing in journals. However, these journals cost an enormous amount of money (mostly public tax dollars), yet add little value to scientific research, while simultaneously slowing the pace of discovery and limiting the dissemination of knowledge. Recently, some of these journals have backed a new law that would further inhibit public dissemination of science in an effort to prop up their already massive profit margins.

But before I get to that, some history.

In Leeuwenhoek's day, there were learned men that set out to interrogate the world around them rather than trust the accounts of the ancients. These early scientists mostly communicated amongst themselves in person or in letters or in books. They shared discoveries freely and it was possible for an individual human to be aware of almost the entire sum of human knowledge. Leeuwenhoek's description of the wee beasties was sent to the Royal Society of London, and quickly disseminated to all interested parties in Britain and the rest of Europe.

Of course, the pace of research has accelerated dramatically since then, and it rapidly became untenable for simple correspondance and word of mouth to transmit new discoveries. The earliest scientific journals - collections of discoveries assembled and printed for distribution - began in 1665. Today, the number of scientific journals is in the thousands, and the people publishing in those journals are largely professional scientists. The funding of science also changed. Rather than being a pass-time of the rich, who funded the research on their own, research is now the purview of highly trained professionals, funded largely from the government purse. Because the rise of journals occurred in tandem with the rise of professional, publicly funded science, the two are now inextricably linked, to the point where the publication of discoveries in journals is necessary to maintain a career in academic science. Job prospects, grants and promotions all depend on the quality and quantity of publications.

Bora Zivkovic brilliantly documented the rise of professional science and modes of science communication (it's long, but well worth reading if you haven't already). His main thesis in this piece concerns the relationship between science and science journalism, but I also think there are insights into the way we as scientists communicate in our professional capacity. The modern link between the publication of science in journals, the funding of science based on publication record, and what publications mean for your scientific reputation means that when I talk to my colleagues, most don't really accept that there's any other way it can be done. Doing science means publishing in journals. Full stop.

But what if there is another way?

Recently, a promenant mathematician named Timothy Gowers started a boycott of one of the largest academic publishers (Elsevier), and it's gaining steam. Some news outlets have even taken to calling this the beginning of an "academic spring" - an uprising fueled by discontent about a powerful cabal that control many aspects of our lives. I wouldn't equate the concerns of scientists to suffering of the people in the Middle East under oppressive dictators, but I think we can and we should take that spirit of revolution to our little corner of the world. We don't need gatekeepers, and we can use the internet to build a movement and replace antiquated and crumbling institutions.

In his blog post announcing his boycott, Gowers said:

I don't think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do. I see the argument as a straightforward practical one. Yes, they are like that, as one would expect, but we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don't actually need their services. That is not to say that morality doesn't come into it, but the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn't.

[Italics in original, boldface mine]

I agree, but I would go further. We don't need any academic journal's services anymore. If you publish in any journal, you are making it easier for them to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn't. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, any academic scientists that took such a principled stand against all publishers would be ineligible for promotions or tenure and would have a much more difficult time securing grants to continue funding their research. But the truth is, journals add very little value to science, and impose huge monetary costs, as well as costs in terms of delayed publication and limited distribution.

Defenders of journals most often point to peer review as an essential bar that journals set, keeping good science filtered from the garbage. There are several problems with this argument, however. First, peer review only became a staple of science publication in the last 50 years. The paper describing the double-helix model shape of DNA was not peer reviewed, but that didn't make it any less correct. Second, peer review doesn't actually prevent crap science from getting published. Take Andrew Wakefield's 1998 paper linking a vaccine with autism (now retracted), or more recently, a theory of everything based on the a principal of "gyers" that has no math and fails to mention quarks or bosons. Even papers that are filled with good experiments and good science sometimes turn out to be wrong - peer review is not the stamp of authority many people seem to think it is. Finally, and I think this is the most important, journals don't do peer review. Academic scientists do peer review for journals, and they do it for free. Journals merely manage this process.

Another defense of journals that I find even more tenuous is their filtering capacity. As scientists, we know something published in Nature is probably of higher quality than something published on The European Journal of Immunology. However, this rule of thumb doesn't always hold, and the more prestigious journals actually have higher rates of retraction than lower tier journals. Besides, when I'm looking for papers on a particular subject, I don't browse old issues of Nature and Science, I do a search on google scholar or pubmed, and I actually read the papers and determine for myself whether I believe their data or not. One of the first skills we learn in graduate school is to critically evaluate a paper - you're not supposed to believe the authors just because they got published in a well-respected journal.

So, what are the alternatives? In my idyllic world, every lab has their own blog, and publishes their results in real time, sharing them on a site like ResearchGate. Individual figures can be indexed on something like FigShare. Scientists can post their negative or confusing data and ask the entire world for help, or talk about their research plans and get critiqued. Meanwhile, altmetrics are being generated in real time to assess the validity of data, and scientists peer review on their own blogs or at some central location. The distribution of scientific knowledge returns to the model of the 19th century - free and openly distributed - but now also instantly and globally distributed at the same time. If you don't like my model, that's fine - come up with your own, but we at least need a situation where other models can compete.

If we don't have other models, and we allow academic journals the monopoly on content that they currently enjoy, they will use their power to continue stifling free access and enriching themselves. Elsevier and other academic publishers are currently supporting the Research Works Act in the US, which would end a current policy that mandates open access to any scientific data that was funded by public money within one year of publication. Considering Elsevier's profit margins are higher than Google's, I have trouble understanding why they feel the need to be more restrictive.

Science benefits when the flow of information is unrestricted and everyone benefits when scientific knowledge advances. Journals no longer assist in the distribution of knowledge, they only impede it, and no one benefits from this arrangement except the journals themselves. It's time for something new.

The links for this post as well as some others I bookmarked while researching it can be found on Delicious

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