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!)
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.