Scientific publishing, the slow death of academic appeal and what to change

Research and the publishing business

For those who have never been involved in scientific research activities, it might be a little difficult to understand how the process of publishing findings, as well as the whole process of research evaluation, works. In short, there is a system called “peer-review”, which is meant to ensure that, prior to publication, all published work has been evaluated and corrected for quality and scientific soundness by “peers”, other researchers who are knowledgeable in the field, ensuring it adheres to the scientific method strictly. It seems like a fair, well-thought and overall good process which guarantees that everything we read is up to the highest standards and free from any bias and interest.

In practice though, the system is quite broken and I would argue that in its current application it is contributing to a downward spiral of loss of prestige and even credibility of the academic world, which is the biggest contributor to its own problems.

There are three main actors in the whole process of publishing research results:

  • the researchers who submit a paper: the authors
  • the journal the paper is submitted to for publication
  • the other researchers who review the work: the peers

Some points to stress:

  1. the peer-review process is carried out on a voluntary basis
  2. the names of the peers are not disclosed to authors
  3. scientific publishing is, typically, a rather lucrative business

Scientists should only be interested in the progress of Science, so it is all good and well that they review others’ papers for free. However, it is a lot of work, which requires a lot of time and the profusion of one’s expertise, and is not rewarded at all by the academic community in terms of career advancement. When you are being assessed for an academic job, the only thing that counts, in the end, is the number of papers you have published, where you have published them (the “reputation” of the journals, quantified by its impact factor), and the number of grants (funds for research) you won. Nobody cares about the laborious and disinterested work you did to contribute to scientific research itself.

The fact that peers are anonymous is, I think, good. On the other hand, there is no reason why authors should not be anonymous to the reviewers as well. Even scientists are humans and they have biases. It is conceivable that, for example, a manuscript by a famous and well-known researcher/professor can, even if just unconsciously, be evaluated differently, and taken into a different consideration, than if the manuscript were written by a still unknown PhD student. This may contribute to the steep career advancement curve of early-stage researchers, another issue which would deserve some commenting on its own.

Now onto the third point. Journals as we know them today are doing very well without putting much effort into deserving their success. A recent and excellent article by the Guardian [1] outlines how the profitable world of scientific publishing came to be and how it promotes a loop of self-sustained growth at the expenses of research. Authors are now at the complete mercy of publishers, who set the rules and make the money. Authors are hungry for publishing on high-status journals because of how academia currently measures success; publishers, whether deliberately or not, foster an ill, profit-based mechanism which should be alien to the culture of Science and of which they are the only beneficiaries. Publishing means, in many cases, giving out your work for free to someone who is going to sell it at a very high price. Also, note that, in most cases, even the editorial and typesetting work of bringing manuscripts to adhere to style guidelines and standards is on the authors, not on the journal!

Is academia fighting back this system?

The answer is: yes and no. Among publishers, the evil of all evils is, these days, Elsevier: the same Guardian article cited above outlines its success story. Elsevier is a giant group of several journals, most of which of high profile. Many researchers are fighting against its policies by refusing submitting them their papers. The anti-Elsevier campaign started within the Mathematics community some years ago and now there is a website devoted to collecting signatures among researchers that are no longer contributing their work to the the group [2].

The following tweet summarises the whole issue very neatly. If you follow the link you’ll discover it’s making fun of an Elsevier paper which inserted a reviewer’s comments into the text of the article, presumably by mistake.

Apart from this, there are several other initiatives oriented at making the publishing process fairer and more in line with the principles of Science, which means detatching it from the big sharks of old capitalism. Timothy Gowers, one of the leading Academics involved the anti-Elsevier sentiment, started maintaining a blog [3] a few years ago, announcing with a bash that a journal has left the Springer publisher to become an independent one. Some collectives of people have also started setting up new ways to share research. See, for instance, the Open Academic Search platform [4], which lists arXiv [5] as one of their resources.

These are all very welcome efforts and might eventually lead to tangible change. However, they’re still not enough. As well argued in this column on Nature [6], the core of the problem stays. Academia is a rather hierarchical world and also quite resilient to change. As already said, it plays the game of the sharks of publication: these are businesses, and behave as such, but academia as a whole is not really working towards modifying its side of the issue. Publishers are definitely unethical and get all the benefits, but who is allowing them to do so? I’d say it is the research community itself.

The way academia selects people by merit to be part of it is still primarily based on how much and where you publish. How long will it take for publications on independent journals or, even better, digital platforms, provided they are peer-reviewed, to be considered worthy of the same respect that those on old, known names are? How much does it take to realise that the system of evaluation of candidates needs dramatic revision, so to not be based on quantities and locations but purely on quality of work? Should we still wait long to see that all biases in judgements are removed? I still have the ugly impression that, despite some efforts of individuals and small groups, the problem stays the same. At the current state of things, academia is also losing its appeal among young and talented indidividuals who believe in meritocracy but refuse to be judged based on numbers and old-fashioned, biased, rich-gets-richer mechanisms. And this is probably the saddest part of all this, which we’re all going to pay for, if it continues.

Is it maybe just a matter of time and we’re on the verge of a substantial shift of paradigm in the way academia works which we’ll live to see in the years to come? Here’s hoping.

References and some better reading material

  1. Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?, the Guardian, 27 June 2017
  2. The Cost of Knowledge
  3. Another journal flips, from the Gowers’s weblog, 27 July 2017
  4. Open Academic Search
  5. arXiv.org
  6. Our obsession with eminence warps research, a column on Nature, 4 July 2017