Stimulated, I believe, by Ron Vale’s call to preprints last year, various luminaries from the world of science and science publishing will be gathering in Maryland at the headquarters of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) later this month to discuss the way forward.
The meeting, called Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology – ASAPbio for short – aims to focus discussion on:
preprints and the role that they might play in catalysing scientific discovery, facilitating career advancement, and improving the culture of communication within the biology community.
Admirably the organisers are hoping to get beyond just talking about the well-known problems of scientific publishing:
The meeting will identify actionable next steps that emerge around areas of consensus, and the organizing committee and other interested participants will be involved in subsequent follow-through.
So it’s a serious affair. And the work has already started. In advance of the meeting, Mike Eisen and Leslie Vosshall have uploaded a commentary proposing a mechanism for coupling preprints and post-publication peer review. It’s short and to-the-point and well worth reading. The central feature of their proposed system is that authors would post preprints that could then be peer-reviewed along two different tracks:
Track 1: Organized review in which groups, such as scientific societies or self-assembling sets of researchers, representing fields or areas of interest arrange for the review of papers they believe to be relevant to researchers in their field. They could either directly solicit reviewers or invite members of their group to submit reviews, and would publish the results of these reviews in a standardized format. These groups would be evaluated by a coalition of funding agencies, libraries, universities, and other parties according to a set of commonly agreed upon standards, akin to the screening that is done for traditional journals at PubMed.
Track 2: Individually submitted reviews from anyone who has read the paper. These reviews would use the same format as organized reviews, and would become part of the permanent record of the paper. Ideally, we want everyone who reads a paper carefully to offer their view of its validity, audience, and impact. To ensure that the system is not corrupted, individually submitted reviews would be screened for appropriateness, conflicts of interest, and other problems, and there would be mechanisms to adjudicate complaints about submitted reviews.
Authors would have the ability at any time to respond to reviews and to submit revised versions of their manuscript.
This is an interesting and provocative piece of work but I have some questions that I would like to lob into the discussion.
- Why would scientific societies, many of which have healthy income streams from journal publishing, contribute to a system that would lead to their demise if adopted widely? Could one create incentives for them to participate or should they be sacrificed for the greater good of research?
- Who forms the “coalition” mentioned in the proposal that has the task of approving review groups? This coalition needs to be authoritative for the system to work, but universities are every bit as invested in the current journal system (and JIFs) as researchers. And funding agencies are reluctant to dictate to researchers the routes through which they may publish.
- This new scheme does not guarantee that peer review will occur. Under the present system all competent researchers can get their work reviewed – and be reasonably assured that it will be published. What would tempt them away from journals if the risks of not being reviewed were perceived as tangible?
Journals such as Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and F1000Research are using more formal types of post-publication peer review – indeed Vitek Tracz and Rebecca Lawrence of F1000 outline its principal features in another ASAPbio commentary (also worth a read). What they offer is a guarantee that review will be conducted and that is something that I think matters to most researchers. I wonder are these new journal formats a more attractive stepping stone away from the present JIF-infected dispensation?
I would be interested to hear other’s responses to both the commentaries and my questions above. It’s great to see meetings like this taking place and I very much hope that a set of actionable points will emerge.
The meeting will be streamed online to enable as many people as possible to follow proceedings, though I hope some of the attendees will take it upon themselves to write pithy summaries.
Pre-prints: Just do it? (Reciprocal Space)
Peer review, pre-prints and the speed of science (The Guardian)