Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The post-journal era

Most of the scholarly publication today goes more or less like this: a scientist writes a manuscript about research funded by her university and/or the grant fairy (usually a government agency) then submits it to a commercial peer-review journal. An editor (either working for free or for "honorarium") reads her manuscript and sends it to appropriate peer reviewers (payment? what payment?). Then, if her manuscript is accepted, her institute's library gets the privilege of buying access to the published manuscript. This state of things is very profitable for the commercial publishers' stock owners, but less so for scientists, libraries and the general public, who rarely get to read research they paid for. While many people agree this system is, shall we say, less than optimal, attempts to remedy the situation have been less than successful, and the commercial publishers might be targeting our research budgets next.

The latest attempt to renovate the system is by Priem & Hemminger (2012). At the beginning of their paper, they suggest that previous attempts in reinventing scholarly publishing have failed due to two reasons:

1.Change to peer review are just patches on a fundamentally broken scholarly journal system
2.Proposals offer no smooth transition from the present system.

Today, the journal fills four main functions: It archives scholarly material and time-stamp the researchers' contributions, if disseminates scholarly products and it certifies contributions (if it's published in a high-impact journal it must be of value). Priem and Hemminger want to make each of these functions independent from the others.

Their first suggestion is to "refactor" the system. This means locating "parts which are confusing, inefficient or redundant" and improving them without hurting the rest of the system. Their second suggestion is the "decoupled journal" (DcJ) (more about this later).

Overlay journals
These journals were suggested by Ginsparg (1997) and only provide the "stamp of approval" to an already published-archived-registered material. Despite the promise the overlay model represents, it hasn't been successful so far, and almost every journal which tried it went back to the traditional coupled model.

The PLoS One model
PLoS One is an open access journal which publishes work not according to what the editors and reviewers consider significant, but consider only the paper's methodological quality. They decoupled the significant approval from the methodological approval. PLoS One also decoupled copy-editing: they warn in advance that they don't copy-edit in details, and instead provide a list of services which do just that. This model has proven to be profitable: PLoS One published more than 5,000 papers in 2010 at 1350$ each (and the other PLoS journals charge even more). The flaws here, beyond the price, are the exclusivity: authors publish only in one journal, and the danger of a future with only a few mega-journals.

Post-publication review services
There are  a few existing post-publication peer review services, the best-known of them are Faculty of 1000 (F1000) and Mathematical Reviews. F1000 "...identifies and evaluates the most important articles in biology and medical research publication." F1000 is supposed to function as additional help for researchers in managing their reading. It has actually been shown to identify quality papers which were overlooked by leading journals (Allen et al., 2009).

Mathematical Reviews is and abstracting service, but as Priem & Hemminger say, it is "occasionally called into service as a post-publication peer review venue when the traditional journal fail in their role as certifiers. In this case, abstracters may abandon objectivity and attack papers and their reviewers directly."

These services have one major problem: they aren't brand names, and can't replace the certification of well-established journals, no matter how much their peer review is sound.

The Deconstructed Journal
Smith (1999) had three insights about the Deconstructed Journal (DJ):
1. The means (journal) and the functions are not the same.
2. Any system that will be implanted instead of the journal has to be at least as good.
3. Several cooperating agencies could successfully replace the central publisher.

Priem and Hemminger cite van de Sompei et al. (2004) and Smith (2003) as those who pointed out the advantages of a deconstructed system:

"...encourages innovation, adapts well to changing scholarly practices, and democratizes the largely monopolized scholarly communication market" 
However, van de Sompeis' and Smith' proposals are a bit outdated, because they hadn't taken into account the social media.

The functions of the decoupled journal
The Decoupled journal (DcJ, rather than DJ) is the updated version of the DJ. This is a universal, or meta, journal, where everything scholars produce and share is stored long-term, added to other projects, linked to, commented about...etc. etc.With the DcJ, publication is the first step in the process of revisions, reviewes, etc. Scholarly items will need persistent IDs, storage, and mirror backup in order to survive long-term. This can be done with persistent identifiers such as the DOI and institutional or subject-area repositories (ArXiv, Pubmed).

After the publication of a draft, it's time for preparation. Preparation is defined by the authors as "Changing the format of a work to make it more suitable for a given (human or electronic) audience". Today, many companies sell authors services (like copy-editing), but preparation is still mostly left to the journal. The DcJ will allow authors the freedom to choose the preparation they prefer (say, PDF or HTML format). PLoS One, as mentioned before, already leaves copy-editing to authors, perhaps showing the beginning of a trend.

After the preparation comes the assessment. Defined as "Attaching an assessment of quality to a scholarly object". Today's method of assessment, peer review, is usually anonymous, unpublished to the general public, and done by invited reviewers. The reviewers give their opinion in free text first, then a final assessment whether the material should be published.

In the Priem & Hemminger model, reviewers don't decide whether the material is publishable or not  (it's already published!) but certificate it. In the future, Nature could become "Nature stamping agency" and give papers its "seal of approval". It will even be able to do so by giving grades, rather than just accept or reject the paper. There will be agencies that will only review the soundness of the work (like PLoS One does today), agencies who will certify only certain parts, open peer reviews and blind peer reviews. Other forms of assessments - blog posts, number of downloads, and even tweets - will be stored as well. The authors see the DcJ as a way to allow peer-review to evolve freely, without its tight coupling with the other functions of the journal.

With libraries' budgets tighter than ever (even Harvard decided that commercial journals are just too expensive ) I expect more and more authors will choose the DcJ route. However, it could be that a certification bottle-neck will be created, with the prestigious journals of today becoming the prestigious stamping agencies of tomorrow. The number of expert peer-reviewers in each field could become a limitation as well. Will our grandchildren complain about the amount of money they have to pay for a Science certification? Only time will tell.

Allen L, Jones C, Dolby K, Lynn D, & Walport M (2009). Looking for landmarks: the role of expert review and bibliometric analysis in evaluating scientific publication outputs. PloS one, 4 (6) PMID: 19536339

Ginsparg, P. (1997). Winners and Losers in the Global Research Village The Serials Librarian, 30 (3-4), 83-95 DOI: 10.1300/J123v30n03_13

Priem, J., & Hemminger, B. (2012). Decoupling the scholarly journal Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, 6 DOI: 10.3389/fncom.2012.00019


Smith, J. (1999). The deconstructed journal – a new model for academic publishing Learned Publishing, 12 (2), 79-91 DOI: 10.1087/09531519950145896


Smith, J. W. T. (2003). The deconstructed journal revisited: a review of developments ICCC/IFIP Conference on Electronic Publishing-ElPub03: From information to knowledge. (Minho, Portugal).

Van de Sompel, H., Payette, S., Erickson, J., Lagoze, C., & Warner, S. (2004). Rethinking Scholarly Communication D-Lib Magazine, 10 (9) DOI: 10.1045/september2004-vandesompel


1 comment:

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