I recently posted a piece on Occam’ Corner explaining why I think instituting radical changes in science publishing should not be a major focus of scientists at this juncture. As those who have read the post will realize, my point is that we scientists need to band together to impress the public – and the politicians – that we are losing a generation of young scientists right now due to inadequate funding. And we may be on the verge of losing a mass of researchers from middle and senior levels as well.
But let’s be optimistic; suppose funding improves greatly over the next few years. What would I then propose?
I do support the idea that a scientist’s career should be judged by one’s contributions to science – and definitely not arbitrarily calculated by something as irrelevant as an “impact factor.” It does not make sense to credit someone merely by their publishing in a big name journal – a “super-journal” – as the trio of Cell, Science and Nature are frequently known. Credit should be given for publishing quality science – I agree with that altogether.
However, I sense that there is a level of naivete surrounding the desire to “level the playing field.” I’d like to raise some of my concerns with certain aspects of open access publishing that worry me.
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I serve as an editor or editorial board member for 4 journals: 2 are open access (PLoS ONE since 2009 and Scientific Reports), 1 is a ‘society journal’ that belongs to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (Journal of Biological Chemistry) and the 4th is a new journal called Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology. I have every interest in seeing open access journals thrive, and I spend long hours supporting these journals.
Having made my disclosures, I will now say that the open access journals are currently in the process of setting their own hierarchies. I don’t see this as wrong or bad; it’s natural. Science is competitive, and everything science-related will ultimately be drawn into a cycle of competition. So for those who believe that their careers have been ruined or impaired by not publishing in top tier journals – news flash – open access will not change the attrition in the tenure system. Researchers may not be weeded out for not publishing in Cell/Science/Nature (and that’s a good thing), but other hierarchies will likely take their place. Perhaps more emphasis will be placed on research merit. Perhaps. One would like to hope. But a new hierarchy will ensue. It is already happening.
Every other day I receive requests to serve on editorial boards; mostly for new open access journals. Some journals – e-Life for example, have assembled editorials boards comprised of well-known scientists. These journals will attract submissions and be considered “high impact journals” – even if no ‘impact factor’ is ever calculated. Other journals will slide to the bottom of the totem pole – or already inhabit the bottom of the pond. I have seen one such journal that has a message from its editor-in-chief on its website. The message is replete with typographical mistakes, spelling errors, bad grammar and awkward language. Would anyone take a paper published in such a journal seriously? I’m sorry, but I would not.
Another fine example that highlights the complexities in the publishing world is illustrated in an e-mail request that I received yesterday to review a paper for an open access journal. With my expertise in membrane trafficking and endocytosis – the cell biology of how proteins get from point A to point B within the cell – I was shocked to find a request to review a cardiology paper dealing with electrical pulses in the mouse heart. Just to make it absolutely clear: I don’t and never have done any mouse physiology/cardiology work, and certainly have no expertise (or even much knowledge) in that area. How desperate can a journal be? How bad can the editorial process and peer review be? Pretty bad, I surmise. Unfortunately, this was not the first – or the second – such odd request to review a paper that I’ve received.
I’d also like to delve a little deeper into the issue of hierarchy – but this time examining why hierarchies tend to form, even within the “good” journals (leaving out the super-journals). Here is my personal perspective, which although true in my field, may well not reflect all others in science.
A quality science publication typically consists of one or more novel finding that advances the field. A mere collection of data – while it may well merit publication for its usefulness to others – is typically not considered the strongest form of publication. Of course if the method is new, or a huge amount of data has been compiled, such a publication may be considered more meritorious. However, generally publications that follow a ‘story’ – that develop and address a hypothesis or series of hypotheses and strive – as much as possible – to make sense of our universe – are those that are most appreciated.
In my field a simple example would be the following: if a researcher identifies (by one method or another) a new interaction between proteins – and then carefully ‘maps’ the interaction to discover how this binding occurs – that could merit a ‘no-frills’ publication. However, if the researchers are able to take the next step, and figure out the significance of that interaction – what the physiological ramifications of this interaction are – that would clearly enhance the merit of the study.
In the field of my wise and respected colleague, Dr. Stephen Curry, solving the crystal structure of a protein is often the standard for a basic publication. A study that reports solution of a complex of several proteins together, or has perhaps made predictions based on a solved structure and tested them – in the realm of structural biology such a paper would have enhanced scientific merit.
Now certainly from the examples above, if both such types of papers are published in the same journal – the more ‘basic’ and ‘deeper’ types of papers – discerning readers will realize that the latter studies (for each example) have more merit. But if there are journals with more established scientists on their editorial boards, they will be more likely to draw submissions (and accept submissions) of the latter type. Inevitably, like a self-forming gradient, journal hierarchies will arise – whether the journals are open access or not.
I don’t have a perfect solution; in fact, I’m sure there isn’t one. Those who know me understand that I am anything but a procrastinator, so my indecision on how to settle this debate is both atypical and symptomatic of the inherent complexities. I need more time to think – but during that time, I am committed to preventing the loss of another generation of scientists from our ranks. So please, let’s fight for the funding first – that’s where the consensus lies.