Academic publishing back in the spotlight

Peer review is under the spotlight again and not for the first time. So that one may understand where we have arrived with peer review in scientific journalism, some background information is first required.

Research is proposed in a specific and often specialised scientific field. Finance is applied for, that is often tax payer funded. The research’s hypothesis is proved or disproved, written up, if proved, submitted to a “scientific journal” for peer review in an iterative process (by another scientific collective who have worked on similar research) until final draft, the “author final version”; this process is facilitated by an editor at a scientific journal. The final version is then submitted for publication in a specialist “scientific journal”; not necessarily the journal the paper was first submitted to for peer review. The more prestigious the journal, the more weight will be carried with the paper’s publication. Publication of “successful research” can often lead to further funding being provided on the same, similar or different research by the paper’s authors.

However into this equation is thrown academia. Academia over the past 10 years, arguably 15 or more years, has installed a philosophy of publish or be damned to the point that in 2006, an estimated 1.3 million papers were published; with publishing being linked to funding in academic circles. In a publication culture where quantity of published papers is cherished, quality is bound to suffer. The recent case of Professor Wolfgang Wagner who resigned as editor-in-chief from a climate science journal highlights the need for more restraint within academic research circles.

Research work produces results both positive and negative. You will be hard pressed to find negative results being published; that is to say, results where a hypothesis is disproved. Yet without negative results being published, other academic researchers may also apply for and be granted scientific research finding for similar or the same previously carried out research. One might say that published research information becomes skewed to positive outcomes. Governments and funding bodies are too big and complicated to keep track of all currently funded research projects, let alone their own accountability, or transparent lack of.

The recent arguments over academic research have generally focused upon peer review process and associated journal publication. There are a catalogue of issues surrounding these areas, separate from the “publish or be damned” academia philosophy. Journalist George Monbiot recently wrote an article about the knowledge monopoly of scientific journal publications, where he suggests academic publishers are worse racketeers than banks, oil companies or health insurers.

Strong words, however their is an element of truth. Scientific journals make lots of money in essence from the public purse, by charging for their scientific journals, which are often sourced with publicly funded research papers, to those very institutions that supply the source material. While publishing houses do provide an important role in facilitating the peer review process anonymously, Martin Robins “TheLayScientist” in the Guardian adds a new spin to this debate with FOI. While Robbins is correct about the use of FOI to obtain scientific data, his argument misses the point about academic journals “refining the raw product“.

Robbins says that:

The problem is that peer-review is a privatized industry in which public interest is an externality. The public pay for raw research to be performed, but we don’t pay for the peer-review or publishing necessary to turn it into the finished article – published research. Instead, academic journals are in the business of refining raw product and selling the result. In this case, the refined product is sold back to the research institutions who subscribe to it. Nobody pays for public access, and there’s no great incentive for publishers to provide it.

Academic papers are usually submitted in a readable and suitable state for publication. What does this mean? As an example, a submitted physics paper for peer review will often be formatted using LaTeX, postscript or some other formatting tool or word-processor as “author final version”. In addition researchers will usually submit their work as defined by the publisher’s guidelines, and will often have to ‘re-format’ for different journal publications, following publisher’s prescribed type-setting parameters.

Scientific journals facilitate the peer review process as there is no other functionary available to facilitate peer review anonymously. The success or failure of a submitted paper can have consequences for future funding by its authors or research institution. Robbins’ conjecture over “refining the raw product” misdirects the reader because his argument steers the peer review debate away from some of the key issues that should be addressed:

  • The academic culture of publish or be damned.
  • Why is academically funded research reliant on private enterprise to facilitate the peer review process?
  • A lack of transparency in the peer review process, interested parties, funding conflicts…
  • Failure to publish with as much vigour ‘failed research work’, i.e. a hypothesis that has been disproved. Publication of such material would most likely lead to future funding drying up for the paper’s authors under the current system. However publishing negative results should not be seen as a failure, but rather as another step within a research process that utilises scientific methodology.
  • Open access to published papers.

Limiting certain scientific papers to a closed or payment subscribed source, confines the transmission of often publicly paid for research and damages the potential with cross-disciplinary research work. Employing the use of “open access” research papers, like open source code, and publishing research that does not produce the “expected result” could result in the expansion of knowledge not only across science disciplines but also with non-scientists.

There are already good existing models for “open access”, which can be found at arXiv or the CERN Document Server that enable anyone to see ‘for free’ the same completed articles (“author final version”) which are submitted to scientific journals for paid publication. If particle physics can do this, why can’t other branches of publicly funded research follow a similar model? This is a question that needs to be urgently address.

I suspect that part of the reason why scientific papers are submitted to published journals is due to prestige and the possibility of further research funding. The sheer number of scientific journals available today compared to 20 years ago, can account for the wanton demand by academics to publish in specialist journals. Academics are also accountable for how they publish their papers; all academia should publish not just to journals but also to ‘freely available’ sources, such as on their research institution’s publicly available servers; especially where those institutions are publicly funded universities.

Academics having to read and publish quantity over quality to “sustain their careers” is part of the problem. Having all publicly funded research using an arXiv model would get around having to “deal with Big Journal“. Were research institutions ‘given the role’ to provide the necessary infrastructure to host research papers, academics could peer review each others work ‘freely’ without the need to pay lots of money to private business; which like government “outsourcing” is making lots of money from the tax payer, ingenious as this model is, there are ethical issues involved.

In this case, information is not only power, but most definitely wealth.