THE BLOG

50 Shades of Grey in Scientific Publication: How Digital Publishing Is Harming Science

Nov 19, 2012 | Updated Jan 19, 2013

Newsweek is dead. But we have Twitter. Harper-Collins just closed its last warehouse of books in the United States. Cambridge University Press, the oldest publisher of scholarly books and journals in the world, printing continuously since 1584, ceased printing operations this year and will outsource printing to another company. The Press survived tumultuous changes since the Middle Ages -- the coming and going of plagues, the rise and fall of empires, wars and famine -- but it could not sustain itself in the new environment of digital publication and self-publication that the electronic medium feeds. Most people are acutely aware of the devastation of print journalism by the rise of digital media, but most people are oblivious to the consequences that the same upheaval is having on scientific publication. There is no science without scholarly publication, and scholarly publication as we have known it is dying.

As readers witness their daily newspapers thin, wither away and die, citizens worry about the digital tidal wave sweeping away the once-vigorous independent press. Many fear that one of the three vital legs of democracy is buckling under the combined weight of government power, ruthless capitalistic self-interest and an uninformed public. Scientific publication is undergoing a drastic transformation as it passes deeper into government and capitalistic control, while weakened from struggling simultaneously to cope with unprecedented transformations brought about by electronic publication.

The Final Step in the Scientific Method: Publication

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. Recent government-mandated changes in scientific publishing are undermining this critical process of validation in scientific publication.

The End of Scientific Publication as We Have Known It

Two transformational changes in scientific publishing are undermining the traditional system of scientific publication: mandated open access and electronic publication. The federal government has mandated that scientific research that is funded in part by federal grants be made freely available to anyone over the Internet. As most scientific research receives some public funding, this mandate affects most biomedical science conducted in the United State and, through international collaborations, much of the science conducted in Europe and Asia. The well-intentioned reasoning of the mandate is that if the research is supported by public funds, then the public should have the right to obtain the published results free of charge. The idea sounds great, but nothing is free.

In traditional scientific publication, after a manuscript was accepted by the editor, it was passed to the production department. Here, as at any book, magazine or newspaper publisher, the text was copyedited and typeset, figure layouts were determined, the article was proofread and, often with much back-and-forth communication between author and publisher, the new study was incorporated into an issue with other papers and printed, bound and delivered to subscribers around the world. Individual articles of general importance were publicized through press releases penned by professional science writers and distributed to the popular media. The journal was marketed to scientists and libraries to attract a wide readership. In this way the quality of the journal was validated by its readers. If the journal consistently published important and accurate studies, subscriptions would rise, income would increase and authors would strive to publish in those prestigious journals.

All this requires a highly educated and expensive workforce. Even as scientific journals (like magazines) transition entirely to digital publication, most of these costs and new ones unique to electronic publication must be paid. The government mandate, however, undercuts all the investment involved in validating and publishing the research studies it funds.

In the absence of income derived from subscriptions, scientific journals must now obtain the necessary funds for publication by charging the authors directly to publish their scientific study. The cost to authors ranges from $1,000 to $3,000 or more per article. Scientists must publish several articles a year, so these costs are substantial.

The funding model fueling open-access publication is a modern rendition of the well-known "vanity" model of publication, in which the author pays to have his or her work printed. The same well-appreciated negative consequences result when applied to scientific publication. Because the income is derived from the authors rather than from readers, the incentive for the publisher is to publish as much as possible, rather than being motivated by a primary concern for quality and significance that would increase subscription by readers, libraries and institutions and thus income. In the open-access, "author-pays" financial model, the more articles that are published, the more income the publishers collect.

In place of rigorous peer review and editorial oversight by the leading scientists in the field, these publishers are substituting "innovative" approaches to review submissions, or they apply no authoritative review at all. Some open-access journals ask reviewers to evaluate only whether the techniques used in the study are valid, rather than judging the significance or novelty of the findings. Others replace rigorous, anonymous peer review from the best experts in the field with open review online where the critics must identify themselves. Anonymous reviewers can be more critical without fear of retribution. Many such open-access journals have no focus, publishing anything in any field of science. Working scientists serving as editors are being replaced by staff who, like factory managers, serve to facilitate production. Nearly all this published material is dumped into the government-run PubMed and PubMed Central biomedical indexes. At one time it took years for a new journal to prove itself before PubMed would index the journal, but not now. PubMed, once the authoritative index of biomedical publication, is now apparently competing with Google Scholar.

Thus we have seen an explosion of open-access scientific publishers around the world soliciting articles for rapid publication online for a fee. I receive direct email solicitations to contribute articles to such journals almost daily now. I have never heard of most of these journals. Weekly I receive formal invitations to speak at an "international conference," the proceedings of which will be published in an open-access journal. The production tasks are now done by the author without traditional support for copyediting, etc. The production is replaced by automated desktop publishing systems that allow the author to put their text and figures into the journal's template upon submission.

Validation by Consensus

The argument is made that the loss of rigorous scrutiny and validation provided by the traditional subscription-based mechanism of scientific publication will be replaced by the success of an article in the market after it is published -- it's the "cream-will-rise-to-the-top" theory. What if, rather than ceasing printing, Newsweek had adopted this "author-pays" mode of open-access publishing? The ploy would have sustained the magazine financially, generating profitable income from authors of every persuasion, advancing special interests and others eagerly paying to fill the pages of Newsweek with their articles. Readers would have been left to sort out the worthy from the unsound. The same situation is faced by readers of many open-access scientific journals. Now when a scientist writes up new research for publication in a prestigious journal, he or she must deal with all the contradictory findings of questionable rigor and accuracy being published by these vanity-publishing, open-access journals.

Similar changes are eroding literary publication as direct electronic publication by authors on the Internet has led to erotic and reportedly pornographic works like Fifty Shades of Grey and spinoffs sweeping bestsellers lists for months. The issue is not whether erotica or pornography is or should be popular; rather, one wonders what literary work might have filled those slots on the bestsellers lists if traditional mechanisms of editor-evaluated publication had been applied, which consider more than simply the potential popularity of a work in deciding what to publish.

Scientific publishing is fundamentally different. Science has profound consequences for society that go well beyond the entertainment value or popularity of a publication or its business profits. Scientists and the public are rightfully outraged and we all suffer when flawed scientific studies are published. Even with the most rigorous review at the best journals, flawed studies sometimes slip through, such as the "discovery" of cold fusion published in Science, but it is the rarity of this lapse that makes this so sensational when it happens. With the new open-access model of author-financed publication, the "outstanding" is drowned in a flood of trivial or unsound work. Open-access publishing threatens to become scientific publication's equivalent of blogging. (Nothing wrong with blogging, but it is not the same thing as scientific publication.)

Well-Intentioned but Twisted Logic

The logic for this government mandate is peculiar. Why do this to science? The scientific journals claim no rights to the results of publicly funded scientific research; they only seek financial compensation for the expenses required for editing, reviewing and producing the article to validate and disseminate the findings as effectively as possible. The government can and does make results of government-funded research freely available through its own publication resources, but such publications from the government printing office lack the scrutiny and validation provided by expert scientists and editors at scientific journals who rigorously and independently evaluate the research.

Do we want a government-run system in which the money for research is supplied by the same body that validates and publishes it? Would you feel confident in a government-run study on a new drug from the pharmaceutical industry made freely available from a government Internet site, or would you want that research rigorously and independently evaluated by expert and impartial scientists before it was published in a scientific journal with an established authority in the field? It is the government that now pays the publication costs for the research it funds. The authors must use the taxpayer money obtained from government research grants to pay the publication costs now required by mandated open-access publishing rather than use these precious dollars to pay for research supplies. Now the public must foot the bill for what was previously paid by subscribers of journals.

Why does this twisted logic apply only to science? Newspapers thrive on publishing publicly financed political processes. By the same reasoning, shouldn't the political results, including outcomes of elections and other publicly funded political activities, be made freely available by newspapers and TV rather than allowing the media to charge for publishing it? If you accept this, what would become of independent and rigorous review of the results of any publicly funded political processes?

The End of an Era

The same thing that is happening to newspaper and magazine publishers is happening to science publishers. A few large publishing corporations with clout are consolidating power. These operations can exploit the new environment and build monopolies, but many scientific journals and scholarly publishers will fail. New journals are often inspired by working scientists seeing a new field of science emerging, which is as yet unknown by others. These new journals may not launch into the present turbulence. A corporate/government financial alliance is replacing scholarly publication once organized and run by scientists and academics.

I appreciate that there are benefits to digital print, open access and self-publication. My intent here is not to provide a balanced argument but to alert readers to dangers that I feel have not received adequate attention. This is not an abstract issue for me, and I openly declare my bias. 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. One wonders how many new advances in science will never have an opportunity to take root now that scientific publication is an increasingly corporate and government business rather than the scholarly academic activity that it was for centuries. Science is advanced by scientific publication. These changes in publishing will affect the future of science profoundly.