June 06, 2012

How journals once facilitated and now hinder scientific progress.

Scientific journals, were instrumental in the ascent of a scientific culture during the modern era. Before their invention in the 17th century, there was, of course, communication of novel scientific findings. However, this largely took the form of:

  1. visits between scholars, not particularly easy by steam and coach, 
  2. letters between scientists interested in the same topics, 
  3. ad hoc collections of writings in the form of manuals, lecture notes, or 
  4. more organized publication of monographs for mature and complete work.

Science during the pre-journal era was not widely disseminated. It was the privilege of the few who aggregated in university towns or around noble patrons. There was, indeed, a culture of distrust, the most famous episode of which was the infamous feud between Newton and Leibniz on the invention of calculus. And, indeed, even though there was already an emergent bourgeoisie with scientific interests, these were largely excluded from science by the mere fact that they were "disconnected" from the network of scientists.

Scientific journals solved many of these problems:

  1. They introduced a centralized method for assigning credit to authors (via publication) and disseminating science to all interested parties (libraries, wealthy dilettantes, etc.)
  2. They made science communication and progress significantly faster, since novel findings could be revealed in piecemeal fashion, and widely disseminated to anyone who might be interested in them and/or build upon them.

Scientific journals made the dissemination of science faster, cheaper, and wider.

I will argue that modern journals perform the exact opposite function: they cause the dissemination of science to be slower, more expensive, and more limited.

How can I argue that modern journals make the dissemination of science slower? The proper comparison is not, of course, against the speed of dissemination of the 17th century, but, rather what is technically possible at any given time.

When journals were invented, they more or less allowed results to be made available as soon as possible, given the limitations of wind, horse, paper, ink, and the necessity of combining contributions into collections that could be printed periodically.

Contrast with the present day: scientific contributions could become available to billions of people, as soon as they have been written. The only real remaining obstacle is the brain-hand-computer interface. But, this, is not, of course, what takes place: rather:

  • scientists postpone the publication of preliminary results until they have a cumulative piece of work that is "publishable" according to journals' standards
  • they submit their work to a closed system of peer review in which a handful of eyes decide whether their work merits publication or not. This takes time, and withholds the work from judgment from literally everybody who might have something to say about it, professional scientists and laymen alike
  • they journal-shop their contributions, with perhaps several rounds of submission/review/rejection/re-writing/re-submission. This may, of course, make their work better, but it introduces months if not years of latency; papers could, in fact, be improved and enhanced post-publication.
  • finally, they must abide by journals' rules regarding publication. The necessity for bundling up contributions in paper format has largely disappeared, but editors' need to plan issues and schedule papers and "publicity" accordingly has not.

Let's proceed to point #2: journals make the publication of science more expensive.

Again, the proper comparison is not with the 17th century, but rather with what is technically feasible today: we can now disseminate scientific research entirely for free.

If you've read this blog for a few years, neither I nor you have paid a cent for it. It could be argued that someone (i.e., Google or other service providers) is paying for this ability, but they are not forcing anyone to contribute. Obviously, they have a business model which allows them to provide free bandwidth to millions of content generators. No one has to pay to read/publish text on the web.

Transmitting papers over the web has a trivial cost. This cost is, indeed, so small, that it is probably negligible in the context of running the Internet. By their very nature, papers are usually small compared to multimedia files. And, even if they became much larger and included lots of multimedia supplements, they could still be easily transmitted using peer-to-peer file sharing technologies and the like.

On the contrary, journals today charge for access to their papers. Sometimes, it is subscribers that pay, else it is authors (in many "open access" journals). But, what is the service that journals actually provide to science? Authors can easily format manuscripts to a readable template, and reviewers contribute their time for free. Journals are leeches on society that provide no discernible service.

At most, it could be argued, that the hierarchy of journals allows everyone to assess the value of new scientific findings. If it's published in XYZ, the idea goes, it must be important. But, this is a pernicious idea for at least two reasons: first of all, there is no shortcut for assessing the value of a scientific paper: you have to read it!

Second, the air of respectability that journal publication provides allows bad science to survive and replicate. Once in a while, some story comes along, such as the "arsenic life" debacle to remind us that being published in XYZ isn't a guarantee of merit. And, indeed, what better way to facilitate the "weeding out" of bad science than to allow more eyes to scrutinize it?

Science dissemination is now more limited. In this respect, the "open access" model has a supposed advantage over the "closed access" one, since it allows everyone to read a paper.

But, the leading variety of "open access" -in which authors pay for publication- is also limiting. It does so not by limiting who gets to read what is published, but by limiting who gets to publish. The choice cannot be for authors to either "pay up" or for readers to "pay up". No one really has to pay anything more than is necessary to run and maintain the Internet infrastructure itself.


I hope I have convinced you that modern science publishing is utterly indefensible: it delays and limits the dissemination of science. It prohibits the poor from publishing or reading science, and hence it helps reinforce poverty and ignorance.

Who benefits from the current model? Of course, rent-seeking journals do. But, we should not absolve scientists themselves of their responsibility. The journal system is scientists' way of assigning and receiving credit for their work. It is a sine qua non of the modern professional science world with its emphases on careerism, grant-seeking, etc.

We must not be oblivious to the fact that what may be good for "scientists" may not be good for Science, and has indeed become a poison that is threatening to strangle Science itself. Can there be redemption for this culpability? Scientists, after all, are supposed to be innovators, so it is surprising how reactionary they have become to any changes in their modus operandi

More and more people seem to understand the problem, but few are willing to embrace the solution. It may be ironic, but the road to scientific freedom may ultimately depend on government coercion precipitated by democratic demand. I don't hope that this will happen soon, both because of corrupt governments and an apathetic populace, but it must.


Mark D said...

Thank you Dienekes for your advocacy. As a layperson (a lawyer) I do not have access to professional journals and rely on what you present here in your blog. I know how little I know about anthropology and genetics and try to absorb as much as I can from the sources available to me, and that mostly consists of books written by those scientists and academics who otherwise would simply have published articles in those journals that are so limited in reach. Fortunatley for us laypersons, there are several of them, including Bryan Sykes whose book I mention in the above thread. There are many more and I suspect that this will become a significant trend for the reasons you have exprssed here.

EuroAlpine said...

Bravo Dienekes!!! I agree to virtually all points of you. The actual scientific system looks indeed old and conservative.

However I like to say that usual journal articles are done by many authors and everyone has a part in it. It would be less easy to setup a cheap online publishing for this kind of work. I fear too many scientists lack knowledge with blogs, graphics, supporting software, etc. to create enough content by themselves.

Jacques Beaugrand said...

Je suis entièrement d'accord avec vous Dienekes. Il est tout à fait ridicule que nous donnions nos idées et résultats de travaux de recherche à des compagnies qui nous les revendent par la suite à grand prix. L'avenir appartient aux publications libres comme par ex. PloS et disponibles largement sur le www. La version imprimée servira de backup ou de support pour les ordinausores qui paieront alors ..

Michael Russell said...

A big thanks to you Dienekes, for putting your work into this blog. While this post is powerful and true, the blog itself is your practicing what you preach. You are serving us well, unlike many

ktwop said...

A nice post which I have reblogged.
A case well made though I would suggest that it is "dissemination" that is being hindered and that any hindrance of "scientific progress" is collateral damage. But I suspect that the role of journals in scientific dissemination is in transition and the scientific community has yet to exploit, come to terms with or understand the potential of open access. However I do not believe that the solution lies in government coercion - we have enough of that already. The solution will - I think - come from the technology itself. The possibility to disseminate widely will lead to "open access" truly becoming open access. It is already noticeable that the more enlightened scientists - and I would suggest they are the better scientists - all run their own blogs and open themselves up to much wider scrutiny than that available through pay-walled journals.

trizzlor said...

Two points of dissent:

1. First of all, there are several on-line resources for making pre-publication material available to the world outside of peer-review. The arXiv.org service is perhaps the most famous of these but. Scientists are generally not restricted from placing their papers into such a repository and many works are first released in this way. If such a service covers all of your concerns, then your criticism should be targeting those scientists that choose not to make use of it.

2. It's important not to over-look the benefit of structure that the traditional publication process offers. Aside from editing and type-setting, the journal provides a single point for formal comments on the manuscript via letters to the editor and retractions. Retractions, in particular, are extremely vital to academic integrity and require a infrastructure of editors and investigators to enforce. Going back to the arXiv.org example, the eras where it has taken off (math, comp. sci.) are those where false-results are easier to detect and self-policing tends to work. Other fields require a more rigorous peer review and the knowledge that a retraction/comment hasn't been published, and in those fields arXiv papers are less trustworthy and less useful.

Primarily, the former requires someone a concerned reader can formally criticize the paper to, and for that someone to perform an inquiry. Presumably, that person needs a post and a salary.

sykes.1 said...

I think you have missed a major point about journals. Almost all scientists are academic, and they need the approval of P&T committees and their faculty colleagues for promotion, tenure and even pay raises.

Refereed journals are a key element in this process. I served on and later chaired my department's P&T committee. In today's era of extreme specialization, even a large department may have only one or two people that really understand a candidate's work, and it is very unlikely that everyone on the P&T committee does. Usually no one does.

Consequently, P&T committees and the wider faculty use publication in refereed journals and journal impact factors to assess the quality of a candidate's work. Certain grant sources like the NSF are also used for the same reason. The reason being that the referees at those institutions are selected to be knowledgeable in the candidate's field.

So, while unrefereed publication (which is what you mean) via say the internet is attractive, its not going to happen until tenure goes away.

That might a good thing, too.

Dienekes said...

I did not miss that point:

"Who benefits from the current model? Of course, rent-seeking journals do. But, we should not absolve scientists themselves of their responsibility. The journal system is scientists' way of assigning and receiving credit for their work. It is a sine qua non of the modern professional science world with its emphases on careerism, grant-seeking, etc."

The fact that the journal system is indispensable to the _professional culture_ of science does not mean that it is beneficial to _science itself_, i.e., the rational and empirical pursuit of knowledge.

Jacques Beaugrand said...

It is the peer reviewing process which slows down publication. Some papers take several years before being ready to be published, after 2 or more revisions.
The peer reviewing process has an essential role in scientific publication.
It serves to critically examine the validity of the procedure followed, its methodology, the statistics used, the conclusions which are drawn from the results, &c.
The quality of the language used is also examined and corrected.
Reviewers also examine the coherence of the results and conclusions with the bulk of knowledge in the domain. This process gives the paper its scientific credibility or validity.
The reviewing process is not perfect or exempt of criticism but it is better than leaving the decision to publish or not to the editor in chief.

Publishing on the www before printing does accelerate the release of the information to the community.
Nonetheless, scientific reports have to be reviewed by a team of competent referees before being posted on the www and this takes time.

Dienekes said...

It serves to critically examine the validity of the procedure followed, its methodology, the statistics used, the conclusions which are drawn from the results, &c.

This can be done after the paper is posted online. It takes so long nowadays because only a limited number of eyes fall on the paper.

It's not like scientists wouldn't peer review each others' papers if they were posted online. After all, scientists do read each others' papers all the time, and they get no major practical benefits from formal review of papers.

Online open review of papers would remove a level of opaqueness from the process. It works wonderfully well for things like open source software, movie/car/tech reviews.

For example, if I want to buy a new hard drive, I don't rely on the hard drive being "approved" by some panel of experts. I rely on the reputation of the company, customer reviews, ratings on sales' sites, and -if I'm technically minded- I can dig down in the specs examining things like rpm, transfer rate, failure rate, or even go down all the way to the physics of the design.

Publishing on the www before printing does accelerate the release of the information to the community.
Nonetheless, scientific reports have to be reviewed by a team of competent referees before being posted on the www and this takes time.

No, they don't "have to" be reviewed by a team of competent referees, and if competent referees want to highlight a paper as an important contribution or trash it, nothing is keeping them from doing it in public, with public comments that can also be judged.

This constant assessment and re-assessment of papers is practical and feasible.

I will also note that pre-publication peer review was NOT widely used in science until the 20th century, and, indeed, until the post-WWII era. It is not an integral part of science, but rather a response of the scientific establishment to the inflation in grant money/papers/scientists.