The NO. 1 problem of academic publishing


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The NO. 1 problem of academic publishing

Tomas Zvolensky, 21 April 2019

#MakePublishingGreatAgain, #Frelsi, #OpenAccess, #SciencePublishing, #ElectricalEngineering, #PublishOrPublish

To be tenured as a university professor nowadays is on par with being a superwoman. Publications in prestigious journals with high impact factor, research excellence, successful grant acquisition, teaching experience and many more are all part of the official requirements prospective professors must endure. The part of navigating faculty politics, often more intricate, is not as straightforward due to the human factor. Plaguing universities across the board is the fear of hiring the ‘wrong person’ combined with the growing amount of Ph.D.’s granted, is thinning the chances of being tenured at astonishing rates. That is unless you have the Ivy league stamp on your diploma, in which case, you have a good shot at less prestigious institutions, perpetuating the autocratic  system of self-importance. Regardless, if you are an idealist or not, for many, postdoc or associate professor position becomes a point of stagnation and sadness.

For the three-quarters of Ph.D.’s who do not make it to a tenured position, reasons for landing in different areas vary widely. Whether you are an accomplished scientist or a student, publishing papers or books is part of the academic life from the beginning until the end. Ideally, scientific journals are the ultimate outlets for sharing the fruit of their work with the rest of the world. The reality of today's publishing landscape can be described as an opportunity seized by leading publishers to run a profitable business under the pretense of an exclusive club protecting the quality of science.

Academic journal as a medium is over 350 years old. The system founded to nurture exchange of scientific knowledge and spark collaboration, has been slow to adapt over the course of its existence. Sure, technological inventions made the process a whole lot more connected, and global. The core of the journal, though, remains stable. Submit, wait for the answer, get accepted, rejected, or anything in between. Move on to another journal or hash out a few rounds of corrections based on the requests of anonymous reviewers. The system works, withstood the test of time, and is considered the cornerstone of academic research reporting.

The rise of open access (OA) movement, predatory journals, or legally prosecuted initiatives such as Sci Hub taking matters into their own hands are but a few examples of a wave of shift culminating towards a large scale systemic change. Despite of being a vessel for rigor and standard, what if the ‘journal’ itself is the cause of the many issues scholars face when navigating their way through the system.

Opacity and bias

Over time, journals and publishers have grown from facilitators of sharing into large institutions. For-profit, large profit publishers have great interest in perpetuating the prestige and imperative of their media.

Fundamentally, journals need authors, not the other way. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the journals need you! If it were not for authors, there would be no journals. Not the other way! So why do we try to please the editors of Nature, Science, or Elsevier journals, so they let us publish in their highly prestigious media? For a long time, journals have been the arbiters of quality. Since then, the growth of the number of papers published annually has far outgrown the increase of the size of editorial boards. The direct result of that is a decreasing amount of time dedicated to ensuring the quality of a paper and great difficulty to find qualified reviewers. Turning editorial work into an endless battle usually leads to heavy-handed  compromises on the reviewer qualification with a detrimental effect on the quality of the review process and finally, on the quality of published content.

The anonymity intended to give reviewers the freedom to be honest in their critiques has been steadily diverging from this definition. How? One of the factors is the exclusive nature of journals building their reputation on the rejection rate after gaining critical acclaim based on the previous publications.

Like melting snow after a winter, the amount of papers flooding the journals makes increasing pressure on editorial boards of journals, which often makes the publishing process obscure to bizarre - the reasons for rejection or the content of the reviews are time and again random and decorelated from the content. This strengthens the exclusivity, since the editors and reviewers are more likely to be lenient towards the work of peers they know and/or consider qualified.

The longer you are in the academia, the more likely you have experienced tangential, unqualified, of straight nonsense reviews. Scholars are also humans, thus, glorifying anonymous peer-review as a definite stamp of validity and quality is misplaced.

While editing and reviewing is mostly free labor, publishing is primarily a profit-driven  business where even major professional non-profit organizations have millions sitting on their ‘emergency’ accounts. After all, you never know when The more reputable, the more lucrative. How does a journal build reputation? By publishing highly cited papers - valuable pieces of knowledge that often spring vast amount of other articles, or even start whole new industries and field of research. It is these papers that bring the journal high regard. As the journal gains critical recognition, exclusivity becomes a symbol of high profile, combined with the impact factor as the measure of prestige. In addition to the scientific correctness, personal connections and sometimes the lack thereof determines one's ability to publish in these journals. Publishing became opaque in the face of the common sense merits scholars would expect to be judged by. To be fair, anonymous peer review works a bit better than a sheer chance. The fact that a paper passed peer review does not mean you should accept it as the truth. It just means that ‘a few scientists read it and didn’t find much wrong with it.’

The widespread adoption of Impact Factor (IF) is part of what this development is based on. Your livelihood depends on it. Metric invented to help libraries decide which journals to subscribe to, has grown to be one of the figures of how valuable your research is or not. While the IF has informational value, it merely provides information about a journal, not necessarily about every paper published in it, which is a problem.. IF mainly serves to perpetuate the prestige of a journal, it does not mean a commitment to scientific truth and quality. The fact that a paper is published in a high IF journal simply means one was able to navigate the thorny maze of the multifaceted environment of scientific publishing and come out on the side with many ‘thumbs up.’

When searching for answers, researchers are looking for articles. The IF is rarely a parameter of the search and this shows that the weight given to IF, is serving mainly the  journals themselves as well as researchers who aim to benefit from it by securing the next funding round. The fact that editorial boards control the publication process is becoming an impediment rather than a proof of quality. Therefore, authors should be able to decide what they want to publish instead of the journals that wield concealed identity peer review which might not be accurate.

The wait and reproducibility

Review times vary, starting with a few months possibly stretching to years. The general arguments for long wait is that the quality assurance takes time multiplied by the prominence of the journal. The time it takes to publish is becoming a leading obstruction for a 21st-century scholar. Anonymous reviewer can deliberately or due to the workload hold off the review process by submitting his review at the latest possible date. In fields where the number of experts able to do the review counts on the fingers of one hand, this is increasingly more likely. On top of that, these experts can be your biggest rivals - with an evident  conflict of interests. While young scholars in the process of building their reputation might shrug this argument away, mid and senior level researchers have stories to tell of their results being scooped.

In this day and age where everything is fast-paced and accessible, I wonder why authors still accept the long delay times before their work is published. While some of the older generations might be leveled with the wait because they grew up in that system, the young researchers, whose papers might be more likely rejected several times before publication are the ones who suffer the most.  For a fresh postdoc, it might be substantially more frustrating when it takes five journals over a year and a half to publish a paper, than for a senior researcher. The reasons for rejection varies between unsuitability (despite the journal published numerous articles with similar topics), a blanket ‘lack of novelty,’ to partial, slash complete misunderstanding of the paper. We get impatient while waiting in line for coffee. However, the authors seem not to be too bothered by the extensive waiting times for reviews. Authors have been subjected to accept it as a part of the process which, in reality, is the momentum of legacy publishing models.

The pressure on scholars to publish has been steadily growing and causes the production of high amounts of insignificant or wasteful papers. Combined with the indifference of publishers results, you get a complex reproducibility issue. Detailed descriptions of experiments or attachment of data on which the results are based are mostly not required by the publishers. Therefore reviewers cannot easily verify the accuracy of the conclusions and statements a paper contains. The format can obscure it’s meaning, even if the data was attached. The requirement to submit a complete data, model and how to use them including other supporting materials, would be essential, although a rather demanding solution.

A way out

Even though there are many smaller or larger scale initiatives trying to tackle the issues science publishing faces, they are mostly focussed on parts of the challenges at best. A multifaceted solution addressing considerable change is slow to come by. It has to be. The momentum in the present system is not caused only by the fact that authors give up their right to be in charge of the publishing process, but also systematic. Many research funding organizations, governmental or private weigh the grant applicants against criteria that include the IF of journals they publish in. This continually boosts the energy of the pendulum of publisher control over science. Taxpayers fund an extensive part of the scientific efforts worldwide, yet the right to access the results of these efforts remain in the firm grip of major publishers. Bold initiatives such as Plan S definitely point in the right direction, but there are many opposing voices as well. Plan S aims to bring about a systemic change by requiring researchers to publish in open-access journals to secure the next round of funding. Large scale grassroots shift is sorely needed as well. The growth of open access movement and the emergence of science focussed social networks in recent years do point in the direction of liberalization of research publishing.

One way to improve publishing is to fully control the publication process. Achieved by publishing only the works of invited authors, resulting journal quality can be very high. Example of such medium is E-Fermat run by professor Raj Mittra at the expense of narrowing the output produced. Another way is to minimize the editorial control to bare minimum and let authors drive the publishing process, as in Frelsi.

Frelsi, open access, post-publication peer review platform is our five cents to help improve the way  science is reported. Open access to publications makes sense not only from the author and consumer point of view but also evolutionary - as internet liberalized the world of information in general, scholars across the board are also increasingly gravitating towards open proliferation of knowledge and there is no reason to keep the science paywalled other than maintaining the profits of major publishers.

Although Frelsi has a board consisting of experts in various fields of electrical engineering, its purpose is exclusively advisory, providing input on the functioning of the platform and advice in specific cases that may arise. Articles are published in about a week time after an initial control, confirming whether the authors truly have scientific background and affiliation, as well as formatting of the paper. Authors are also required to submit any data improving repeatability and reusability of the results presented in the paper by the readers and reviewers while respecting any NDA contracts.

Open post-publication peer review done by reviewers invited by Frelsi ensues once the paper is published - assigned a Digital Object Identifier (DOI) and publicly accessible on our webpage. The identities of the reviewers and the content of the reviews are public, not leaving any space for bias or exceedingly harsh evaluation - it is possible to be objectively critical while being polite. The paper goes through review rounds, each new version is assigned a DOI, until at least two reviewers give the paper accepted, or two ‘accepted with restrictions’ and one ‘accepted’ status.  

The official peer review is over at this point. Nevertheless, readers can always comment and question the content of the paper to facilitate community-driven quality control and open discussion.

We believe that this system of publishing strongly supports majority of principles Plan-S stands behind and gives researchers an efficient tool for publishing their work contributing to ‘making publishing great again.’

Tomas Zvolensky
29 May 2019
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