The Impending Death of Scientific Journals
If Copernicus had a website – assuming “www.earthrevolvesaroundthesun.com” was still available – it probably would have been much easier to spread the word about his novel theory. Instead, he depended on a publisher to reprint and distribute the work. For centuries, scientists have relied on publishers and scientific journals to make public their findings and until about fifteen years ago, it was hard to imagine that system might ever change. But we’re in the 21st century now – an era that promises interplanetary travel, holographic tv, personal jetpacks, and an end to Dancing with the Stars. In such a fast-paced, technologically-savvy society can traditional publishing mechanisms really survive or are we about to witness death of scientific journals?
We’re taught the Central Dogma is DNA –> RNA –> Protein, but most scientists recognize that the true dogma is closer to DNA –> RNA –> Protein –> Publish. A researcher’s publication record and resulting impact factor directly impacts hiring, compensation and funding decisions and thus, is an integral component of research as most of us know it. However, scientists have acknowledged that impact factors are flawed and may be manipulated by journals to artificially prop up their importance. In fact, in recent years alternative measures of author performance such as the H-index have emerged in an attempt to more accurately describe researcher productivity, although these methods are not immune to criticism.
Having read this far many researchers will experience an uncontrollable, instinctual response to the idea that journals could ever disappear – “not possible!” they say, “we need journals”. Did we need cassette tapes to play and share music? Did we need to hold up an entire line of people by paying for groceries with a personal check? Maybe we’re wrong. Maybe journals will live forever, but there’s a certain irony in scientists – among the strongest supporters of the theory of evolution – refusing to at least consider that their own profession will evolve as well.
This is not to discount or trivialize the role journals play in the scientific process. On the contrary, journals have been the primary mechanism of reviewing, validating and distributing results for centuries. [Full disclosure: my own father is the founding editor of a scientific journal, so it’s not that we’re cheering the death of these publications.] The idea is that using modern technology, these functions may be achieved through alternate – and arguably more efficient – means.
So what would life without journals look like? Consider how modern technologies might pick up the slack.
Believe it or not – for those of you under 30 – there used to be a time when looking up articles on a specific topic meant going to the library (gasp!), pulling out a 30-pound chemical abstract index and guessing at relevant keywords for your topic. After finding the keyword, you’d be directed to any number of references that may or may not be of interest, but you’d only know after looking up every single one. This usually meant risking getting squashed among the rolling towers of journal archives in the library’s basement. Similarly, staying current in a field meant wandering over to the library and scanning the relevant print journals – often a couple of general and a couple of specialized journals – for a couple of hours.
Good luck with that approach today. The ever-expanding number of journals has made it nearly impossible to stay on top of the literature with over 50% of scientists admitting they read “zero” journals, opting instead to follow specific research topics. In fact, many subscribe to services that provide regular keyword searches of the literature and notify them if anything has been published (perhaps a future role for journals as advanced content aggregators?). The point is, we’ve already moved to searching for research by topic, author or keyword not necessarily by browsing intact journals.
If you’ve got a website, you’re a publisher. And these days, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lab that doesn’t fit this bill. In fact, since access to most journals is subscription-based, a freely-accessible lab webpage actually presents an opportunity to increase visibility among a wider audience. Like with journal publications, work published on your own website could be delayed until any necessary legal issues (patents, etc.) were resolved, or until you felt you had a significant head start on the follow-up experiments if you’re worried about competition. Website publications could be time-stamped like enotebooks so it would be clear who was the first to a new discovery. So what’s the difference between staying current in the literature by setting up a keyword search to cherry pick from journals vs. scientists’ own websites?
For a moment, close your eyes and imagine a world without file type errors (do they accept .tif or .png files?) or formatting (and reformatting) issues. No wasted time searching for 6 words to remove to make the cutoff, no image resolution issues when converting between three different file formats. Ah, feels good doesn’t it?
Scientific research and publication is built upon peer review and journals have been the primary mechanism of maintaining this standard. While our peer review system isn’t perfect, it’s been the only logistical solution available to us since it’s clearly been impossible to imagine sending the work out to everyone in a field for a review prior to publication. But in it’s purest form, wouldn’t peer review include feedback from all of your colleagues in a given field – not just two or three? Twenty years ago, the prospect of gathering widespread sentiment on an article was daunting. Now it happens on the web every day. Some will argue that the reviewers play an important role in making sure the story is complete. However, there will always be more work that someone could suggest, so appeasing two reviewers doesn’t mean the work is finished. Just ask any graduate student who participates in a journal club how easy it is to rip apart a published, peer-reviewed piece of work.
But in the absence of peer review how would we know the value of the work, particularly if it weren’t in our area of expertise? Countless web-based measures of user sentiment and interaction have been developed in the past decade. Actions such as rating articles, leaving comments, tracking downloads, counting bookmarks and quantifying social sharing are all valid, real-time metrics of user response to content.
OK, now close your eyes again and imagine what it would be like to publish an article without spending thousands of dollars in publication costs. What else could that money be used for – equipment, reagents, computers? Of course, uploading the results to your webpage would take time, but compared to the amount of time that goes into preparing and publishing a paper in a traditional journal, it would be far less. Most people have stopped ordering reprints of their papers, so there wouldn’t be significant printing costs associated either. Interested parties could download or request a pdf directly from your site.
The idea here is not to imagine that one day all journals become open access – it’s to consider what research would look like with no scientific journals, when scientists’ lab webpages serve as the publication mechanism. The Internet has changed almost every facet of our lives so when it comes to our own profession we shouldn’t be too quick to assume evolution won’t apply to us too.
Have any ideas ideas how scientific publishing may look in the future?
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