By Daniel Tarade
I hope that I have made clear why traditional publishing strategies in science have precipitated a crisis. Further, I have attempted to highlight positive trends in scientific publishing while not betraying optimism. We are still mired in the idea of science as competition, as individualistic, as hobby, and as disconnected from others who exist in the world. Scientists are not impartial observers of the world. We construct worlds, largely mythical, encoded in jargon and esoteric phrasing. We dictate the tempo of the comings and goings of technology and of health. By and large, we are publicly funded. Yet, we often betray our constituents. Not only would an overhaul of our mode of scientific communication aid the public to whom we are beholden but would cultivate an atmosphere of honesty, collaboration, and rigour. Here are the tenets of socialist publishing.
Non-profit and Open-access
One journal to rule them all
Any scenario in which multiple journals are allowed to persist, a select few will ultimately emerge as more prestigious. Take PLoS One and Scientific Reports, two open-access mega journals with nearly identical standards for publication. Recently Scientific Reports overtook PLoS One for largest journal in the world, a trend that appears to be largely driven by a higher impact factor. However, Phil Davis over at The Scholarly Kitchen has predicted that as more scientists begin to publish with Scientific Reports, its impact factor may depress and PLoS One may again gain favour, with the two mega journals oscillating in popularity. Prestige is associated with arbitrary standards that can be over-promoted in a self-serving act thats maintains exclusivity and the appearance of importance. As discussed, this is harmful for science as scientists are pushed to pander to concepts of sexiness and novelty rather than rigour and honesty (although there is nothing that prevents rigour and honesty from being viewed as “sexy” - such a mindset just needs to be fostered). In a world where all researchers are connected digitally, a single repository of science makes most sense. Publications listed on a CV or grant application would no longer be binned according to journal impact factor. Rather, evaluators will be forced to more deeply probe the quality of science being produced. As the title Science is already taken and irreversibly equated with the worst of for-profit, vanity publishing, I propose that such a journal be titled Proceedings of the Collective Scientific Effort.
Publicly Funded and Non-Profit
It is inarguable that the results of scientific enquiry are for all of humanity and, as such, individuals should not profit from its dissemination and research groups should not have to pay for publication. The online repository of all scientific research will be jointly funded by all countries in proportion to published research output. No longer will research groups have to debate whether or not they can afford to publish an article. Believe me, this happens. If a work features largely negative data, it can still be published in certain, lower impact journals (like PLoS One). But for poorly funded labs, such publications may not be worth the high cost, which could instead be spent in pursuit of the “higher impact” work that may result in more grant money. Any argument that an online, publicly funded journal would cost too much tax-payer money fails to recognize how much tax-payer money is already spent on publication costs and subscription fees. Ultimately, consolidating all research into one non-profit journal will save tax-payer money, ideally being funnelled towards more actual scientific research.
This concept is inspired by Cortex (and their Registered Reports stream to publishing) and by the new trend of open-notebook science, which includes several University of Toronto researchers. Science is a process and allowing for multi-stage publishing maintains transparency and allows for co-ordination between research groups. At minimum, multi-stage publishing would require pre-registration of a study design, complete with rationale, hypotheses, and proposed experiments. Not all research questions are formulated in a traditional sense and are instead inspired by strange observations. In these cases, study designs must also be submitted but can include initial, well-controlled observations that can be published during the preliminary report. The study design will undergo peer-review and published. Rather than allow for data to be scooped, related study designs can be co-ordinated at this stage to avoid redundant research but encouraging a certain degree of overlap to assess reproducibility. For projects with multiple aims, updates can be peer-reviewed and published. Once the entire research proposal has been completed, the work will undergo a final peer-review.
Of course, the concept of writing a research proposal and having it assessed by your peers is not a novel idea to scientists. This is the process by which grant evaluation takes place and decides how research funds are divvied up. Thus, it becomes logical to integrate research fund allocation into the publishing process during pre-registration.
Focus on Rigour not Impact
Much like PLoS One, the benchmark of publication will not be interest, impact, or novelty but rather whether the conclusions made are supported by the work. During pre-registration, the focus will be on appropriate experimental design (identification of relevant controls, complementary experiments, etc). As a results becomes published, the strength of the evidence in support of conclusions will be assessed by the editor and reviewers. In response to their evaluation of the conclusions, the researchers will have a chance to temper their conclusions, conduct additional experiments, or otherwise have their conclusions tagged as being tenuous.
Prioritization of Reproduction Studies
Published manuscripts that prompt large discussion (and submission of new study designs) will be prioritized for reproduction. The community will be tasked with performing key experiments from the published manuscript and reporting on the findings. In such a way, major findings can be independently validated by researchers. Non-reproducibility in the absence of scientific mis-conduct will not result in retraction (much like now) but non-reproducible work can be visibly labeled as such, with conflicting reports being digitally linked. If an artifactual reason is uncovered as the cause of an erroneous result, the work can be revised (including titles and conclusions) but will remained published so that others in the field can be made aware.
Avenue for Collaboration
As projects are being conducted, researchers can request collaboration with other research groups with relevant expertise. In an era of exceeding scientific specialization, work can proceed more rapidly as certain research groups are incredibly adept at performing certain experiments and analyses.
Editors are Scientists
Journals like eLife and PLoS One have already utilized this approach, where instead of editorial roles being filled by ex-scientists, your fellow peers will be tasked with the final say on whether a work merits publication. Working scientists are more intimately aware of standards within a field. Scientist editors will be tasked with identifying appropriate reviewers and have final say on which experiments and revisions (following discussion with reviewers) are necessary for publication.
That is the idea. Considering that other online repositories of information (e.g. Wikipedia) exist, such a journal is feasible. However, it would require scientists to agree that progress is impeded and not promoted by competition. Such an ideology also forms the basis of capitalist economies, where people purport that without incentives (financial or otherwise), there would be not reason to work. Yet, it is important to note that even in a socialist model of science, incentives will exist. Research labs that produce routinely reproducible or wide-reaching works will still be championed. However, these incentives can only be achieved following publication and not upon convincing a for-profit editor that a work is of “impact.” Scientists will reclaim the means of incentivization and will no longer be beholden to goliath publication companies and their arbitrary checklists and algorithms.
There is more I want to say about for-profit publishing.
First, I found the idea amazing that every researcher (rightfully) has an obligation to report any financial conflicts of interest but the majority of scientists publish with journals that have an inherent financial conflict of interest by virtue of being for-profit. We have internalized this financial conflict of interest and call it prestige.
Second, the idea of having individual journals used to make sense. Prior to the internet, print journals were an important way for keeping up-to-date on the happenings in your scientific community. Also, in this time period, the cost of a subscription was also somewhat justifiable due to expensive printing costs. Today, many journals are entirely online and still charge obscene subscription rates. Pre-internet, journals that publish “important” work also had merit. Scientists could only afford to subscribe to two or three journals. Often, one would subscribe to your society journal but also one or two general journals to keep abreast of large trends in science. However, even during this era of scientific publishing, important papers found themselves condemned to esoteric journals despite obvious implications for the wider community. Gregor Mendel's paradigm forming work with pea plants was ultimately published in Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn.[i] Despite being published while Darwin was still alive, the work that would have clarified the nature of inheritance, so vital for Darwin’s work on natural selection, remained an obscure, poorly read manuscript that had to be re-discovered.
Lastly, we have set traditional publishing to be the gold standard when, in reality, it was merely the only way to disseminate work in the past and provide a modicum of quality control. During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, representatives of the American blood industry repeatedly denied the contamination of the national blood supply and refused to begin implementing blood tests until it was too late. Representatives argued that no peer-reviewed literature existed linking blood transfusions to AIDS.[ii] This is true but obfuscates that during meetings between the Centre for Disease Control and blood bank representatives, this data was presented to them. The CDC cannot be blamed for being unable to speed up peer-reviewed, for-profit publishing. Alas, the blood banks stone-walled for as long as they could and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths was the price to pay. Other AIDS researchers were also complicit in the maintenance of the status quo. Rather than disseminate research more quickly, most aimed to publish in prestigious journals that resulted in lengthier review processes and an embargo period during which researchers could not correspond with the CDC. It is impossible to predict how many people died due to this pursuit of ego and vanity. If more open scientific discourse resulted in effective therapies being available even half a year earlier, it would have meant saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
[i] Mukherjee. (2016) The Gene: An Intimate History, Scribner.
[ii] Shilts. (1987) And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, St. Martin’s Press. A fantastic example of investigative journalism. One of its many criticisms is levied against the capitalist model of scientific inquiry, more focused on competition than honest investigation of phenomena.