Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Genes Are Us

science-publishing

(Photo: Protasov AN/Shutterstock)

Scientific Publishing Is Killing Science

• February 28, 2014 • 3:00 AM

(Photo: Protasov AN/Shutterstock)

Here’s how to fix it.

Even the National Institutes of Health acknowledges that biomedical science has a growing credibility problem. Last month, Director Francis Collins and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak wrote that “the recent evidence showing the irreproducibility of significant numbers of biomedical-research publications demands immediate and substantive action.” The evidence they cite includes a startling 2011 report by researchers at the pharmaceutical company Bayer, who were unable to reproduce the results of nearly two-thirds of a set of peer-reviewed, pre-clinical drug studies. Collins and Tabak cite several reasons why researchers produce so much bad science these days, but among scientists in both academia and industry there is a growing feeling that how we publish science is a big part of the problem. Scientific publishing is failing, and it’s taking science down with it.

Scientific publishing is supposed to facilitate research by carrying out two major functions: quality control and dissemination. Quality control is, in principle, achieved by peer review: a manuscript is checked by two or three expert reviewers, who scrutinize its methods, data, and reasoning. After peer review, a journal makes the research useful to others by disseminating it as printed articles that end up in university libraries, and, more recently, as electronic articles on journal websites.

Academic journals today, even ones that only exist online, are still based on the centuries-old model of printed and bound matter that gets shipped to subscribers.

But researchers worry that academic journals are failing at both of these functions: Peer review is failing to ensure the quality of published research, and new research fails to get into the hands of those who need it, ending up behind journal paywalls after a review process that can take more than year. To fix these problems, we need to recreate scientific publishing for the Internet, argues Richard Price, the CEO of Academia.edu, a site that offers a suite of social media tools aimed at helping scientists and other academics share their research. Price, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Oxford University, told me that what gets him going in the morning is the possibility of making the world’s research endeavors more efficient and more rigorous by changing how we publish academic work. He believes that an improved publishing process should have three features: 1) speed: Researchers should be able to upload their manuscripts as soon as they’re written; 2) community peer review: Manuscripts should be evaluated by the whole community, not just two or three reviewers; and 3) open access: Papers should be accessible to all who want to read them.

Price and his team are building software tools to do this. Their site allows researchers to share and discuss manuscripts, helps users follow particular topics, and provides ways to measure the impact of individual articles and researchers. It sounds useful, but the critical question is this: Will busy academics, with strong career incentives to stick with traditional publishing, bother to participate? The answer appears to be yes; Academia.edu keeps a running tally of its users (7,689,443 when I last checked). Even more promising, users are not just early career scientists; Price told me that senior researchers, with established reputations, are also joining in large numbers.

PRICE’S PROJECT IS ONE of several attempts to rethink how science is reviewed and disseminated. Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California-Berkeley, has frequently argued that traditional journals, particularly high profile ones, are hindering science: “Peer review as practiced in the 21st century biomedical research poisons science … the mythical veneer of peer review has created the perception that a handful of journals stand as gatekeepers of success in science, ceding undue power to them, and thereby stifling innovation in scientific communication.”

Like Price, Eisen believes that open-access publishing and community, post-publication peer review will play an essential role in fixing science. Eisen co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a publisher of a series of open-access scientific journals. While most of these journals work like open access versions of traditional journals, one of them, PLOS One, follows a more radical publication model. With the goal of leaving the evaluation of a paper’s significance to the scientific community, PLOS One promises to “publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.” Post-publication review can then happen with a set of software tools on the journal’s website.

Other organizations are also experimenting with ways to make post-publication peer review effective. The National Institutes of Health recently created a discussion forum called the PubMed Commons, which is conveniently integrated with the widely used PubMed citation database. PubMed Commons requires users to register under their real names; while PubPeer, an independent forum, allows anonymous comments. eLife is both a journal and a communication platform. Backed by major research foundations in the U.S., U.K., and Germany, eLife is experimenting with new approaches to pre-publication peer review, while also developing tools for tracking post-publication peer review.

“The whole model will change,” Price says. Academic journals today, even ones that only exist online, are still based on the centuries-old model of printed and bound matter that gets shipped to subscribers. Manuscripts are still written in paper-mimicking applications like Microsoft Word, and distributed as non-machine-readable PDF files that are laboriously formatted to look like printed articles. As Price envisions it, the future of scientific publishing won’t involve recognizable journals at all. Scientific publishing will look more like GitHub, a successful site that provides tools for programmers to share, review, and find code. Researchers will use a set of integrated software tools to write, format, share, and track their work openly, building their reputations and their careers with community peer review.

The biggest challenge will be to get the scientific community behind these new and unfamiliar ways of evaluating and disseminating research. Very few of my colleagues are happy with the current state of science publishing, but they are not willing to risk their careers by abandoning traditional and widely recognized measures of scientific accomplishment. Given the fierce competition for funding and jobs, it’s difficult to see how informal post-publication peer review and social media cachet could replace the terribly flawed, but easily recognized success of publishing in a high-impact journal. But this replacement doesn’t have to happen all at once. If these new experiments in publishing prove that they can deliver better research more efficiently, the scientific community will adopt them.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.