What is wrong with scientific publishing and how to fix it.

Randy Sheckman’s recent decision to boycott the so called glam-mag Cell Nature & Science (CNS) made me realize that I never expressed on this blog my view on the problems with scientific publishing. Here it comes. First, one consideration: there are two distinct problems that have nothing to do with each other. One is the #OA issue, the other is the procedural issue. My solution addresses both but for sake of reasoning let’s start with the latter:

  1. Peer review is not working fairly. A semi-random selection of two-three reviewers is too unrepresentative of an entire field and more often than not papers will be poorly reviewed.
  2. As result of 1, the same journal will end up publishing papers ranging anywhere in the scale of quality, from fantastic to disastrous
  3. As result of 2, the IF of the journal cannot be used to proxy quality of single papers and not even of the average paper because distribution is too skewed (the famous 80/20 problem)
  4. As result of 3, there is no statistical correlation between a paper published on a high IF journal and its actual value and this is a problem because it’s somehow commonly accepted that there should be one.
  5. As result of 4, careers and grants are made based on a faulty proxy
  6. As result of 5, postdocs tend to wait years in the lab hoping to get that one CNS paper that will help them get the job – and  obviously there are great incentives to publish fraudulent data for the same reason.

Ok, so let’s assume tomorrow morning CNS cease to exist. They close down. How does this solve the issue? It doesn’t.

CNS are not damaging Science. They are simply sitting on the very top of the ladder of scientific publishing and they receive more attention than any other journal. Remove them from the top and we have just moved the problem a bit down the ladder, next to whatever journal is following. Some people criticise CNS for being great pusher of the IF system; “to start”, they say, “CNS could help by making public the citation data of the single papers and not just the IF as journal aggregate”.  This would be an interesting move (scientists love all kind of data) but meaningless to solve the problem. Papers’ quality would still be skewed and knowing the citation number of a single paper will not be necessarily representative of its value because  bad papers, fake papers & sexy papers can end up being extremely cited anyway. Also, it takes time for papers to be cited anyway.

So what is the solution? The solution is to abolish pre publication peer review as we know it. Just publish anything and get an optional peer-review as service (PRaaS) if you think your colleagues may help you get a better paper out. This can create peer reviewing companies on the free market and scientists would get paid for professional peer review. When you are ready to submit, you send the paper to a public repository. The repository has no editing service and no printing fees. It’s free and Open Access because costs are anyway minimal. What happens to journals in this model? They still exist but their role is now different. Nature, Cell and Science now don’t deal with the editorial process any longer. Instead, the constantly look through the pool of papers published on the repository and they pick and highlight the ones they think are the best ones, similarly to how a music or a videogame magazine would pick and review for you the latest CD on the markets. They still do their video abstracts, their podcasts, their interviews to the authors, their news and views. They still sell copies but ONLY if they factually add value.

This system solves so many problems:

  1. The random lottery of the peer review process is no longer
  2. Nobody will tell you how you have to format your paper or what words you can use in your discussion
  3. Everything that gets published is automatically OA
  4. There a no publication fees
  5. There is still opportunity for making money, only this time in a fair way: scientists make money when they enrol for peer-review as a service; journals still continue to exist.
  6. Only genuinely useful journals continue to exist: all those thousands of parasitic journals that now exist just because they are easy to publish with, will perish.

Now, this is my solution. Comments are welcome.

The alternative is: I can publish 46 papers on CNS, win the Nobel prize using those papers, become editor of a Journal (elife) that does the very same thing that CNS do and then go out on the Guardian and do my j’accuse.