Epijournals

I hold the theory that ideas are much more social than we think. When the time is ripe, they simply flourish in many minds at the same time. For example, one year ago, in this blog we published an entry discussing the possibility of a peer-review system on the ArXiv. Some hot debate ensued, and some people used very harsh language. But time was ripe, and people more influential than I have started a project, called epijournals. So far, the only source of information is Tim Gower’s blog and the comments on it. [Note added: it’s been pointed out to me that there is already an official link]

So, again, what is the problem? The problem is that basic research is funded, mainly, by public money. But the results of research are published in journals which are privately owned, and make a profit. Well, one might think that if it is a reasonable profit, and they add value to the publication, everything is fine. But the added value approaches zero asymptotically, and the profits are completely insane. Scientific journals get their stuff for free, since we scientists do not get any money for the articles. We do the research, typeset the articles, and make them camera ready. No charge. Also, we act as referees to judge the quality of other people’s papers, and very often also edit them. No charge! Yet, the journals are amazingly expensive. And sometimes they play harsh with the rights of the scientists to use their own work. E.g.: the dutch publisher Elsevier, which has become our bête noir, and against which we’re holding a boycott.

What value do the publishers give, anyway? Prestige. Their stamp of approval. If you publish an article in Nature, Physical Review Letters, or Cell, it means that it has gone through a careful selection process, it must be worth reading. But this revision process is done by… us scientists! And is done for free. So… if only the stamp matters, why not using it directly on the ArXiv?

The idea is simple: epijournals will work as regular journals, with editors and referees. The only difference will be that the journal webpage will not hold the articles themselves, only links to the ArXiv. So, you upload your paper to the ArXiv. Then, you write an email to the editor of your favourite epijournal, telling her your ArXiv number. She will send it to referees, make a decision and, if finally published, you’ll get a link in the epijournal webpage. Easy peasy.

As of now, it’s only mathematicians taking the step. It’s crucial that big guys send their papers to these epijournals, only then they will gather momentum and become prestigious. We, little people, need big publications to get tenure… so, please, please, if you have an important breakthrough in maths, consider submitting to one of them (when they start, of course).

What should the next step be? As of now, the “ranking of publications” is held by Thomson Reuters, a private company with a lot of power. For example, they compute (using a secret formula) the Libor and Euribor indices. They decide whether a journal is good enough or not to enter their Journal of Citation Reports, which charges the journals their revolutionary tax in order to stay in the list. Shouldn’t UNESCO take care of this task?

Other interesting issues related to epijournals:

  • Should we allow (signed) comments on the articles? I would like to.
  • Not only comments: I would love to chat with the authors of the papers I like. And, as an author, it would be so nice to chat with the readers. It will help reduce the feeling of irrelevance of theoretical work…
  • So, this would evolve in the direction of creating an on-line social network for scientists.
  • Is blind peer-review good enough? Why not double blind? (The referees do not know the authors either)
  • Make a two-stage refereeing system: a quick and dirty one, which would correspond to the current system, and another five years after publication, to assess what was the real impact.
  • About authorship: shouldn’t we allow for “partial” authorships? Or, more concretely: specifying what has everyone done in each paper. The current strategy of listing the authors in a certain “relevance order” is clearly not enough…

I hope more questions will come up in the comments… ;)

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