Some initial thoughts on the future of online scientific publications

A recent PhD comic is a fun comment on something that I believe will become an important and serious topic of discussion in the science community in the near future (it has been going on for some time already). There are many parallels to open/free software and other on-line publications for instance. The crux for science is the quality control - the peer review process.

Last year I peer-reviewed quite a few manuscripts for a some different organizations, journals, and conferences. I had the time, motivation, and joy to take on almost all requests that I got. Thus, during the first months of this year, 2009, when the thank you emails started popping up I returned to a chain of thoughts that had been in my head for some years: closed publication archives in the age of the Internet. I made some notes, and the comic strip made me return to them once more.

What I have been thinking of is the danger for science when publishing for a closed audience, the funding problem of open access publications, and the management of quality control in free-for-all direct Internet publication.

This text outlines the problem as I see it, but I am not familiar enough with the subject to offer a solution at the time of writing. Merely my thoughts on the way forward.

Over a long period of time distribution has mainly been in hands of publishing houses and academic societies. This has partly been a question of tradition, but I guess it has mostly been the issues of the logistics and costs of publishing. The publishers have arranged for reviews to be performed, for type setting, printing, and distribution. The editors perform an important job by overseeing the flow of manuscripts and overseeing their review process.

The journals and proceedings have then been sold to academic libraries through subscriptions that funded the process. There is a small downside to this: access. To keep subscriptions to the wide flora of journals an institution has to invest a significant sum. In all it has been worth it though. The dissemination of research is an important cornerstone of modern science.

But the world moves forward, and things evolve. Today publishing on the Internet is easy and cheap. Especially self -publishing. (As this text is a proof of. No editor stopping me here for good or evil.) However, while most of the content on the Internet is easily accessible much of its scientific publications are so called closed access. That is, if you do not have an account on an institution with a subscription you will not be able to log in to the publication site and access the articles. It is a way for the publishers to make their subscriptions worth something and thus to be able to get paid.

I will leave the discussion if the cost is just to cover the service or to make money to be, it is not the focus of this text.

What is more interesting is the alternative, called open access. This form of publication has been spoken for extensively during the last few years, and many scientific institutions now publish their texts on-line for anyone to read. The idea is that science should belong in the public. The model for publishers of open access journals today, to keep making money, is to let the authors pay a fee instead of the reader. While this might sound good it can also create some problems. There are already some discussion on the ethics of a pay to publish service (if the journal rejects a paper they loose the fee which in some eyes is bad for business). Another issue is the fact that many research institutions still do not have budgets for publication to that extent.

In any case I believe that open access is the way everything needs to go. Especially on the Internet. It is something that will happen, and it has already happened in some other publishing fields.

Take comics as an example. The on-line comic industry is booming. Why? Because there are many talented people in the world with a story to tell. The syndicated comic industry is a tough place to break in to, but given the ease of self publication (a computer, scanner and, some server space is all you need), when rejected many of these people just said: 'well, to hell with them, I will just do it on my own!' . There is a huge amount of comics available on-line. Most of it free for the reader. Sure, some strips are creations that would never had stood a chance and people just do not come back to read them again. Still it did not cost the artist/write much to put it up there and try their luck! Other comics however beats much of what is in print today in numbers of readers.

What would stop a scientist with a rejected manuscript (justly because the research is flawed , or just unlucky by a tough editor, it does not matter), or with an accepted paper but no money for publication, from saying the same 'well, to hell with them, I will just do it on my own!' ? And put it out on-line by himself?

What would the results be?

There is a difference between on-line comics and on-line science. Comics are taken as a form of entertainment: an editor or a reviewer of a comic judges its artistic and entertainment value. If the reader doesn't like it she does not return. In (natural) sciences we should judge if the paper justly describes a body of research and even the world around us. In today's world, a scientific opinion is closely associated by some kind of "truth"; for good or bad. (Just look at how much different "scientific" studies are used in modern debate. Often supporting opposite claims.) Even if a reader does not like it she may still conclude that it is a true study.

The likeness between comics and science is that to find good publications I still trust reviewers. I do not want to wade through either bad comics or false science to find something I like.

Traditionally this has been the service of the publishers. If a manuscript is published by a good journal I know it may be of quality and I will give it a look.

Thus based on the efforts of editors and reviewers some work is spared the reader, and an amount of trust and prestige is given to the work. Thus, to my point: the risk is that we will lose the very important process of peer reviewing if we do not allow it to evolve and exist on-line.

I should make it clear that I truly appreciate the process of reviewing because I believe dissemination to be one of the pillars of our scientific world, and the quality of the work is helped greatly by reviewers. The importance for us to share our findings and experiments in a form so that they are understandable and hopefully repeatable by our colleagues. This is a corner stone of science.

Peer reviewing serves a purpose for both the authors (they get early feedback on errors, critique  and can anticipate how their work will be received ) as well as the scientific community  - by trusting the peer reviewing process of a journal we accept that a paper holds a certain standard, and does not have to spend so much energy trying trying to judge if reading the publication is worth the time.

It is the way of science. Evolution. If a work can not withstand the testing questions from some scientific peers it should be developed further. The healthy critic scientific environment we create defines the quality of the disseminations. Science should ideally be published on its own merits.

So where does this put us? We need a peer review process, traditionally organized by the publishers, but open access triumphs closed any day. It is law of the net. Author fees will not work in my opinion. Today's fees can be in the range of $1000 US and above for a short manuscript that does not even go to paper print, but just get hosted on a server. Compare that to free.

I think this leaves us with three possible futures. Or perhaps a combination of these.

The first option is that there will be a coalition of publishers that are deemed "trusted" arranging for reviewing and editorial processes. How they will be funded is then still an open question, and how they will be trusted. Traditions? An independent body? One can easily find arguments against both.

The second way things could go is that universities and research institutions gradually will take over the role of the publishers by self publishing research on the Internet with open access. To some extent we see this already today. The review process might be performed by a process where different institutions performed access for each other. This could however create its own problems of self interest as the independent role of the publisher is removed from the process. And what about new universities, do we trust them less?

The third option is that the review process itself evolves to adapt to the new rules of the net. Editor jobs of other type of open access content such as blogs are performed already today. Reviewing, and then foremost blind peer reviewing, could prove more of a challenge but I am fairly sure that as well could be arranged. Reviewing is already today performed for free by scientists as a service to the community, so costs will not be in the way.

I think it is clear that I favor the third future. Not because I wish to remove the publishing market or have anything against the publishing industry - I am a lover of publications, libraries, editing, and books after all; I would probably take a job as a scientific editor for a journal (at least for some time) if it was offered to me one day.

No, I favor it because I think it is the best possible option, and an intriguing development. The Internet is one of the greatest achievements in human history, and it give us a huge set of new powerful tools for scientific dissemination. For a start, it enables self publishing, I think everyone can agree on that. This leaves quality control.

The role of editors and reviewers will still be needed. I believe peer review is needed, that is why I review a heap of papers per year, for free. But the process can not be costly and guarded by access control. A scientist today does not get paid for her publications. She eat because her university and institute pay her a salary. Scientists publish because it belongs to the job of course, but like the artist we have a message that needs to be told.  Be it out of I-was-first self interest or belief in the truth of the findings. If a too strict or costly control and access process is imposed on the official publication route other ways will be used. That is the natural law of the Internet!

So, I believe in finding a third solution because we have to. If we do not, it could mean that the scientific results are not part of common knowledge in the future; and that threatens not only the way we publish, but the importance of science.

More and more people all over the world is gaining the education and time it takes to understand and participate in the modern scientific process. This will take humanity leaps forwards! Many residents of developing countries have no access to university libraries. But they will have the Internet! In one way or the other.

The Internet will always be there, until someone pulls the final plug. Scientific findings should be an easily accessible part of that. Would you want someone looking for the solution to a problem to read your paper on the matter, or that other guy's manuscript (rejected or approved) that happens to be available on-line when they search?

As you can see this is a matter that interests me greatly. I believe in open access, and in the need for both the functions of the editor and the reviewer, but not necessarily in the roles of today. Given the time I will do some proper reading up on the subject. I have a faint memory of reading a link to proposals for on-line reviewing and such. In the mean time I apologize for any inconsistencies and errors in the text.

I guess I can summarize it as: I enjoy building my ivory tower, but the road there should be paved and the gate open.