Evolving Thoughts

Originally, science began when people started to give their papers and results publicly, for discussion and correction. Back in the days of the Royal Society and other subsequent bodies, a talk would be read to the society and then published in their proceedings, and there was an immediate live feedback. Nowadays the process is much more ossified – research, give talks to your research group, present posters and if you are really lucky a talk at a major conference, then send in the paper for peer review. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Any researcher has played reviewer roulette in which some competitor rejects your work because they don’t like it. But now there are some interesting developments in the field of publishing papers.

One is by the august journal Nature, which has offered a trial in which people can comment on papers before they are accepted. Nature, one of the original scientific journals, actually started out as a way to popularly communicate Real Science to the Masses. But it, like many others, has become formulaic (there has to be a Methods section, a Results section, and a Discussion, and so forth). And reviewing has had some troubles lately, with papers getting through that are just not acceptable, with the occasional fraudulent results, bad technique and so on.

So Nature is offering a “preprint and comment” trial, in which identified members of the relevant community can comment before the paper is accepted. This could be a very useful tool, or it could be a complete disaster that descends into academic politics and competing schools battling it out.Time will tell. Nature will make the results of the trial available in three months.

But the Public Library of Science has an even more radical idea: “open access publishing”, which they are calling PLOSOne. This is a mix of blogging, wikis, and traditional publishing, and the idea is that all papers will be open for comment and discussion. Add to that mix the Creative Commons Licence, which is an “open source” form of copyright protection that nevertheless permits everyone to download or read the material, and science just got back to its roots. The major difference is, of course, that the net.loons will come out. This is a problem that Hooke, Newton and that crew didn’t have so much.

It remains to be seen what this all means for science, and indeed, academe in general. Disciplinary journals are often done by large publishing houses, who use economies of scale to fund the production of technical monographs which would otherwise be too expensive. The flow-on effects here will be enormous. If academic publishers cannot make money from the library subscriptions for their journals, we might see the loss of the academic text as well.

[Via The Daily Transcript.


  1. #1 John Pieret
    June 11, 2006

    Nature, beside originally being, as Janet Browne put it in The Power of Place, “a journal that would provide cultivated readers with an accessible forum for reading about advances in scientific knowledge,” was part of Huxley’s and the X Club’s cultural assault on the conservative establishment (in both science and elsewhere). It was their (American football term alert) end run around the stodgy institutions they felt were holding them (and, hence, science) back.

    The more things change . . .

    The shake out will be interesting but I’m confident that scientists will find a way to share ideas while keeping the dross down to manageable levels. After all, they are used to facing all the obstacles that society and nature can throw against them and winning through.

  2. #2 revere
    June 11, 2006

    Thanks for the nice overview. Just a couple of additional comments. PLoS is just one (maybe the most wel-known but not the first) OpenAccess publishers. I am co-Editor-in-Chief of an OA journal and like many others, we practice another kind of peer review, also called Open Peer Review (we’ll have to standardize the terminology of what Open Peer Review means at some point). Our experience with it (after a number of years) has been excellent.

    In our version, both reviewers and authors are known to each other (i.e., reviews are not blind in either direction) and after publication, the reviews are available via the online site under at link called “Pre-publication History.” Downloading the .pdf (which of course has no subscription, fee or permission associated with it) does not automatically bring the reviews, just the usual journal formatted paper, but if a reader wants to see the reviews it is one extra click away from the download button.

    Some people are uncomfortable having their name revealed to the authors, who may be friends or colleagues, but for the most part this hasn’t been a problem. On the plus side, we find the reviews are much more constructive, polite and in general, trying to be genuinely helpful to the authors. The result has been much improved papers, and the authors have, almost without exception, acknowledged this. In this process reviewers also get some credit. Reviewing is a chore, as all of us who do it know. It’s nice to be recognized for doing a good job and Open Review does this.

    The preprint free for all already has precedent in physics and mathematics where the publication times were so long preprint servers were established to get them out to people ahead of time. The widespread use of LaTeX made it feasible ((didn’t need the journals for typesetting), and now papers are going to preprint servers even without being submitted to jourals, a prefigurement of the PLoS experiment. This has been going on for years and the House of Science hasn’t fallen.

  3. #3 Sun&Sea
    June 11, 2006

    My two great pet hates with the practice of modern science have always been the lack of open access to full papers, and the way peer-review is conducted.

    I am so glad there finally is some serious interest in and (apparently successful) experimenting with open access and open review.

    Normally cynical me is greatly heartened by experience and comments of Revere, in particular about the more cooperative and constructive atmosphere created by open review. I think this augers very well for the future of a rigourous and transparent ‘House of Science’, and I wish you all the best with that project. Keep spreading the word!

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    June 12, 2006

    revere, does this mean the preprints on ArXiv and the like are cited in professional journals despite lack of peer review?

  5. #5 D.B. Light
    June 12, 2006

    Sorry to disillusion you, but Hooke, Newton, and the crew were, by any reasonable standards, certifiable loons themselves. Perhaps that was the source of their greatness.

    Peer review was always based on a rather dubious assumption — the existence of an objective, disinterested, elite “community of competence” that could certify its members’ output. So long as “science” is undertaken by human beings it will be subject to human fallibility. The collapse of the peer review process is merely the latest episode in an old, old story.

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