#occupy_scientific_journals

The main aim of this post is to propose a peer-review system on the ArXiv. We need a revolution in the scientific publication scheme.

1.- What is wrong?

Today I needed a scientific article for my research. My institution is not subscribed to the journal, but the publisher said “No problem, dude, just pay $33 and you can read the paper”. Seriously!?

Scientific publishing is a peculiar business model. Authors make no money from publication. Neither do referees. The typesetting of the articles is usually done by the authors themselves. Yet, the alleged cost per article is around $1.000-$10.000… Seriously!?

Work in fundamental science is usually paid by governmental funds, through taxes. And, even when the money comes from private hands, still their aim is to create knowledge and make it publicly available. But, as of now, the general public does not have free access to the results of the research they fund. Even professional scientists have frequent problems to obtain articles they need, thus making their research more difficult. This problem is getting worse with the economic crisis, and has always been a major issue in developing countries.

If authors do not make any money, why do they publish? For want of reputation and dissemination of their work. Funding agencies need some quality measurements in order to make decisions about which project to support. The accepted system, worldwide, is the number of publications and citations, and the prestige of the journals in which you publish. Journals are ranked by the JCR (journal citations report) index, which is itself… another private company (Thomson Reuters), which charges enormous amounts of money to universities and research institutes to pay for a faulty database.

Of course, some publishers are better than others. IOP and the DPG started New Journal of Physics, which is open. The problem is that publishing there is quite expensive. Other open journals can be found here.

2.- What do we want?

We want a cheap and open publication scheme. Most of the work is already done already by us.

We want a fair reputation system, which rewards high quality research, to serve as a guide for government agencies to direct their funding. And also as an internal guide to the relevant literature (too much to read, otherwise!)

3.- Ideas

The most promising point of departure is the ArXiv. It is free and open. It costs its maintainers (a board of worldwide research institutions) around $10 per article. Why not creating a peer-review system on the ArXiv? If authors so desire, they might ask for a “peer-review stamp” on their preprint. It wouldn’t be so difficult. A similar idea was already put forward by John Baez.

The peer-review process, as it stands today, is both too slow and too fast. It’s too slow because it takes months for a regular submission to see the light. By then, it is very often well known by the community, who had access to it through the ArXiv or otherwise. And it is also too fast because the referee process is not good enough to assess whether a paper will have impact or not. It takes time to know. So, why not making two “peer-review” processes? A quick-and-dirty one when the paper appears in the ArXiv. A second one, more detailed, after a few years, to evaluate its real importance.

Another nice idea would be to create an open discussion forum for each paper, where people might be able to make comments and ask questions. In the stack-exchange community style, reputation might be awarded for making questions and providing answers which the community approve. Of course, the forums need not be attached to papers only. The concept of paper as the “unit of research” may become outdated in such a structure. Papers were the natural medium for the exchange of information when the dead-tree technology was dominant… but, just like the mechanical loom, animal traction and congressmen, may be overthrown by history.

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26 thoughts on “#occupy_scientific_journals

  1. “The peer-review process, as it stands today, is both too slow and too fast. It’s too slow because it takes months for a regular submission to see the light. By then, it is very often well known by the community, who had access to it through the ArXiv or otherwise.”

    Publication in peer reviewed journals is therefore useless to practising scientists. It’s only useful to the educated layman who needs an “objective” criterion to assess the credibility of a claim. But the layman has no access to published journals in the first place.

  2. This is a bit like academic degrees: their most important aim is to be a guide for lay employers who want to hire an expert. Experts are normally able to evaluate by themselves. Yet, this is only true in your very field of expertise…

    In the case of research evaluation, employers buy their subscription to access the Web of Science, by Thomson Reuters, a highly expensive database of scientists, papers, journals and funding acknowledgments.

  3. Anyway, I am not sure I’d support such initiative. When I see “accepted for publication in whatever journal” in an ArXiv paper, I understand someone has checked every single step in the paper and has established that there is a clear train of reasoning in it for an educated reader to go from the introduction to the conclusions without losing the trail or being lured into confusing results. Can I do this for myself? Sometimes I can, sometimes I can not. I am far from being an expert on most of my fields of interest and I appreciate very much the assessment of some skilled referee… and the journal takes accountability for such expertise. In a open environment, I’d need to check the reviewers background before trusting or not their scientific comments etc etc what, in the best of the cases would mean tripling the time needed to read a paper.

    I do use wikipedia (as both reader and writer) quite often in my everyday’s life, but I wouldn’t dare to use it in my research… would you?

    • I see your point Ricardo, but I see things somewhat differently. Firstly, you know as well as I do that many papers published in the refereed literature are far from being either thorough or correct in their analysis methods or statistics or calculations or derivations or conclusions. You also know as well as I do that the referees chosen by the editor are sometimes very good and sometimes not good at all in their ability to assess the work presented in the paper. Having said this, I am nonetheless of the opinion that any refereeing process will ultimately lead to a better paper, not matter how competent or incompetent the referee happens to be.

      However, it is certain that there are many people in the larger community, much more than a single, hand-picked referee of questionable competence, that would be happy to comment, ask questions that will most likely often be very useful, make suggestions that will inevitably help the author(s) improve the paper on many different levels.

      So for me, it is not a matter of replacing the refereed peer review process, which although it has its weaknesses is generally very useful and I would say necessary, but rather it is a matter of engaging in critical but open reviewing and discussions within the larger community, tapping into the knowledge and experience of many more people, some of which will certainly be much better suited to comment and evaluate than the potential referee that would be chosen by an editor, in order to make our papers and our science of higher quality. And I think this is great.

  4. Ricardo, I do *not* advocate for the end of peer-review. I ask for a clear evaluation of scientific quality and, while we do not invent something better, peer-review is good enough. But peer-review is done by ourselves, scientists, and we do it for free. So the idea would be to bypass the publishers, and establish in the ArXiv a mechanism to do peer-review, by experts, the same as the journals do, but at a much lower cost.

  5. I would like to denounce the behaviour of the editors of Physics Forums

    http://www.physicsforums.com/

    I attempted to discuss these topics in that webpage and I found hostility and aggressivity from the editors. For the first time in my life I have seen such an un-scientific behaviour. Ignoring the facts that I cite, mis-interpreting them on purpose. Please, read by yourselves:

    http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=568276

    My guess: such attitude may be linked to the fact that the web is funded by the publishing industry. In fact, it is funded by Scientific American itself, as they state in their front page.

  6. Actually PF is funded by the contributions of members, though they do have adverts which appear on different pages. I’m sorry you’ve had a bad experience there, I’ve always found it to be a great place.

  7. Hi, PF_Member. I have found a very hostile environment in Physics Forums in this occasion, although I have enjoyed the experience a lot in the past. It’s hard to explain such aggressivity by several editors. Indeed, PF is linked to Scientific American. PF members get a reduced subscription fee, for example. I can not prove that there is funding from SciAm, but there is a clear link. Some PF editors have acted mala fide, and the only explanation is that they wanted me out. I feel unwelcome and I have removed my account.

  8. I’m interested (having seen many different paths a PF thread can take); do you think PF itself is bad or that there are a few people who you feel have behaved badly this time? I’ve certainly seen times when conversations have got heated but that’s an aspect of all life I feel.

    Regarding SA you are right it seems; I did a search and saw that members do get a discount
    http://physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=230618 perhaps because for SA offering a small discount to a site with thousands of members is a way to get more subscriptions. Though SA is not a peer-reviewed journal mind.

  9. Good question. We’re scientists, I should be able to make things more precise… I have felt unwelcome by the “top” people, all of them with a lot of badges. Those guys were quite harsh and aggressive. Other contributors, without any badge, were much more polite and friendly. I know conversations can get hot, I totally understand that, but there was a patronizing component, treating me like a crackpot, that made things disgusting.

    For me, the problem is closed. I’ve had a personal conversation with one of these “PF top guys” and settled things up a bit. He has more or less apologized, and claimed that the problem is that there are a lot of crackpots around. I told him that it’s much better to treat a crackpot kindly than to make anybody feel unwelcome, and he agreed. I do not intend to return, but I will take no further actions. And I still feel there were some further motivation in some guys, like ZapperZ. Link to SciAm can be an explanation. Indeed, they get funding from them. Although, as you say, it’s not a peer-reviewed journal.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments and your support.

  10. Consider yourself signed up, Riverdaughter! :) But, serously, beyond spreading the voice and discussing the idea around, what we should do is to participate in sites which encourage open scientific discussion. Community peer-review, proposed by Ricardo, is a nice place, but it is focused only in astrophysics http://communitypeerreview.blogspot.com/. I will contact the maintainers and propose to extend it to cond-mat, my own field. Also, I have discussed with one of the “editors” of http://theoreticalphysics.stackexchange.com the possibility of extending it to become a general forum for open discussion about papers.

    • We’ve upgraded the Community Peer Review site (http://communitypeerreview.blogspot.com/) to include more of the arXiv Physics categories. Hopefully this broader scope will attract more use of the site. Please let us know if you have suggestions, additions, improvements. We intend to be responsive enough to requests to give this thing a real chance to get some traction!

  11. The idea keeps growing. Tim Gowers (Fields medalist, author of the wonderful “Princeton companion to mathematics” and launcher of the “polymath” project) stated his personal disgust against Elsevier, one of the most aggressive publishers:

    http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/

    His stance gained momentum, and now there is a full-fledged website to express our disconformity with their policies:

    http://thecostofknowledge.com/

    Things are moving…

  12. Hi javirl,

    I wholeheartedly support the general sentiment that in the age of the web we should be able to go much beyond what we have right now (which developed this way for historical reasons). I also agree that the point is never to replace peer review, but to make it much much better than the present state of affairs. I am on the board of editors for NJP (New Journal of Physics), and I know from experience how hard it can be to find good referees. Let the community do the job, with questions, comments, and so on.

    I think the best starting point would be the arXiv, indeed. Everyone already has accounts there, so comments would be signed with real names, which automatically prevents flame wars (mostly).

    I have added a link to your post on my own blog,
    http://coherence.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/httpcommunitypeerreview-blogspot-de/

    • Hi, Florian! Thanks for the comments. In fact, I admire a lot the work in NJP, I think you’re taking huge steps towards open science. Your blog post is also very nice, I’ll leave my comments there.

  13. Pingback: Community Peer Review (a great new idea) | Quantum Coherence

  14. Pingback: Epijournals | Physics Napkins

  15. Pingback: Occupy Science

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