Scientific peer review and publishing taking a turn for the better

A number of people have brought this recent article in the Economist to my attention. Some excerpts:

There is a widespread feeling that the journal publishers who have mediated this exchange for the past century or more are becoming an impediment to it. One of the latest converts is the British government. On July 16th it announced that, from 2013, the results of taxpayer-financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute.

Criticism of journal publishers usually boils down to two things. One is that their processes take months, when the internet could allow them to take days. The other is that because each paper is like a mini-monopoly, which workers in the field have to read if they are to advance their own research, there is no incentive to keep the price down. The publishers thus have scientists—or, more accurately, their universities, which pay the subscriptions—in an armlock. That, combined with the fact that the raw material (manuscripts of papers) is free, leads to generous returns. In 2011 Elsevier, a large Dutch publisher, made a profit of £768m on revenues of £2.06 billion—a margin of 37%. Indeed, Elsevier’s profits are thought so egregious by many people that 12,000 researchers have signed up to a boycott of the company’s journals.

Support has been swelling for open-access scientific publishing: doing it online, in a way that allows anyone to read papers free of charge. The movement started among scientists themselves, but governments are now, as Britain’s announcement makes clear, paying attention and asking whether they, too, might benefit from the change.

Read the entire article here

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The recent backlash and boycott associated with Elsevier and their outrageous policies and pricing certainly became a spark that fanned flames across many venue of science. International Business Times wrote then:

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician from Cambridge University, called for the boycott on his blog in January over Elsevier’s high subscription price, high profit margins and subscription bundles.

“I am not only going to refuse to have anything to do with Elsevier journals from now on, but I am saying so publicly,” Gowers said in his post. “I am by no means the first person to do this, but the more of us there are, the more socially acceptable it becomes.”

I can tell you this, I’m aware of movements on several fronts along these lines, it is not a matter of if, but when. It seems inevitable to me that traditional journals will eventually go the way of the dodo.

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David Jones

Perhaps indirectly, this looks like the first fruit of the Climategate scandal. No more can scientists refuse to archive their material properly, in complete and accessible form, and no longer can they illegally refuse FOIA requests for their data.

ironargonaut

so every poorly written paper will be published w/o review or will the authors round up some buddies to “review” it for them. Can’t say it is much different from current science journals…but seriously how would the truly unscientific get filtered?
Try an internet search cancer, normal search brings up every charlatan. Where as google science filters for only published papers. Or will only govt funded science be considered legit?
curious as to how others see this developing.

There is a bit of hyperbole here.
In the olden days, university libraries subscribed to journals and anyone could visit the library and read whatever. Most university libraries restricted borrowing to academics, but anyone was welcome to the reading rooms. Indeed, academics could not borrow journals either.
Now that journals have moved online, free (at the margin) access is limited to academics. The vast majority of journal articles is only ever read by academics.
Although free access to all is laudable in principle, it is not a big change in practice.
The crucial change is that, in the old system, the readers paid — and they stopped paying for journals that only publish rubbish. In the new system, the writers pay — and there will always rubbish researchers with too much money.

Sean

We need journals as we want peer review. Blogs/ forums/wiki have a role too, but they in general are not up to peer review. Climate is an exception, as intelligent people capable of seeing the hype and BS did not get a straight answer to a straight question and smelt a rat. The journal contrived not not having the data or serious review as that suited their product suppliers and most of thier client base went along.
We want the arguements in the journals to be superior to the internet and we are prepared to pay. But if they do not much better than the internet, why pay?

Scarface

So, essentially, publishers like Elsevier also feed on the government trough. They too have a big interest in the continuing of all the global warming research and publishing. Scary, actually, since free press and free publishers are a guard to protect us from wannabee dictators to succeed.
“but governments are now, as Britain’s announcement makes clear, paying attention and asking whether they, too, might benefit from the change.”
How could they NOT benefit, when their public financed scientists won’t have to pay anymore for public financed research? Just do the math. But governments nowadays have no economic principles, just tax-maximalisation and people-minimalisation (which goes hand in hand btw)
The green inmates are running the asylum.
And what has government to do with science in the first place?
One solution only:
Stop public funding of science and adjourn the scientific-governmental AGW death-spiral.

Ben

The Journals should face a De-Radical Shakeup.
Too often, the agendas of Radical Leftists who have overtaken journals, have misrepresented information, promoted false information or taken anti-science actions outside of the Scientific Method.
It’s Time to Remove the Radicals and Restore the Scientific Method to Scientific Journals.

Ally E.

Wonderful news! This will shake up the fraudulent parties! Heck, we might even get some TRUTH out of them. Honest scientists everywhere will applaud this. 🙂

Jantar

It is 40 years since I last attended University, but this month I returned to the hallowed halls of academia to advance my post graduate qualifications. 40 years ago, most papers were available within the university library, now i have to request most of them and the library will source them from the respective journals. The main difference is that instead of the library holding a physical journal that I could read, they now receive a pdf copy of the paper I request and that in turn is emailed to me.
So if the journals deliver the required papers electronically, I receive and read it electronically what is the reason for the papers being so expensive? Obviously publishing on the internet, with an open review, would make for faster and better spread of scientific information.

Paul Schauble

>In the new system, the writers pay — and there will always rubbish researchers with too much money.
Amazon’s rating system does a good job of pointing out worthwhile books. Something similar would work for scientific papers too.

Peter Miller

This development may be a lot more important than any of us realise.
This should mean the end of Team-style ‘climate reseach’, where the original data is usually hidden, eaten by the dog, lost or considered proprietory, and therefore confidential by the researcher,
It may also herald the beginning of the end of climate ‘research’, where the results are already pre-determined, (i.e. scary enough) to generate sufficient grants for the researchers to continue with their comfortable lifestyles.
Why this has not been done before beggars belief. If the release of all government (or quasi-government) funded data on climate had been made mandatory 20 years ago, then I doubt if any of us would have ever heard of Mann, Hansen, Jones and their ilk. Not only that, but there would never have been a Hockey Stick.

The movement started among scientists themselves,

No mention of WUWT or CA or the rest – but it is still implied since a large number of the readership here are indeed scientists whether trained or no. After all, it is the pursuit of scientific method that defines a real scientist, not qualifications. A point we understand here but, it seems, warmist supporters do not.
I was tickled pink to hear Rob Honeycutt (Skeptical Science), criticizing Robert Tamaki over at Amazon (Tamaki gave Mann’s book a one-star rating). Rob Honeycutt complains that Andrew Montford is not a scientist. But Rob declares himself to be no scientist.
So, yes, the movement started among scientists.

Mooloo

The vast majority of journal articles is only ever read by academics.
Actually, the vast majority of journal articles are barely read at all. A couple of other people in the same field, then they gather moss.
There post focuses on science, but there is no need to. Other disciplines with more general readership face the same restrictions. Lots of history articles, for example, would have large readerships if they were available.
All publicly funded research should be available for minimal charge, not just science.

I live six blocks from Columbia’s library system for which I have an alumni reading access card. I still put off reading 80% of the pay wall articles I come across. Even a slight hassle changes behavior when it amounts to an hour trip instead of the five minutes it would take to figure out what the article is really about. The professors and students there working in labs of course have a password to be able to use Columbia’s full computer access system to all of the pay wall material, so they can read the literature after midnight whenever they want.

sophocles

Finally.
This is what the World Wide Web was invented for—to give scientists a way to publicize
their work so their peers (and anyone else interested) could have ready, easy and early
access to it.
Tim Berners-Lee’s original intention is bearing fruit at long last.

Dr. John M. Ware

Some have said that the change to open research publication would allow inferior research to be available to all. That is already true, as Climategate supplies evidence. It will still be up to the reader, as best he can, to distinguish good from bad. There has always been both good science and junk science in published material; the fact that it will now be free and open for inspection can only be an improvement. Peer review can and will still occur, and should also be available for inspection. Those who know the science will be able to benefit from quicker, easier, and cheaper access to new works from others, which can advance their own research.

It would be good to know that our hard earned money is spent on worthwhile research instead of some of the rubbish now making its way to Nature, New Scientist et al.

Ally E.

Peter Miller says:
July 25, 2012 at 12:55 am
This development may be a lot more important than any of us realise.
This should mean the end of Team-style ‘climate reseach’, where the original data is usually hidden, eaten by the dog, lost or considered proprietory, and therefore confidential by the researcher… [etc.]
*
I think we all realize this, Peter. It’s certainly what I’m celebrating for. Your whole post nailed it. 🙂

@Sean
Publishers will tell you that you pay for the value added by their professional editorial, publishing, and database management skills.
Others might tell you that researchers want to publish in the most prestigious journals, that journal space is in short supply, and that publishers extract a monopoly rent.
A quick look at the profit margins of major publishers suggest that the latter is closer to the truth.

SanityP

There might come a time when, to be considered a credible, proper scientist, you have to publish your (tax-payer funded) scientific research so it’s publicly available and all paywall-published, pal-reviewed scientists’ articles will be frowned upon. Make it so.

David Ross

They should be published online and peer reviewed online so that anybody can view and contribute to the process in real time. There should be a mechanism for people who register to comment to have their field of study and qualifications, checked and displayed below their name. Anyone should be able to go and view the comments and be able to filter them e.g.
Show me comments by assigned peer reviewers only
Show me comments only by people with a PhD
Show me comments by everybody
Show me comments by people with PhDs in Astrophysics, tenured to U.S. universities who are less than 40 years old.
People should be able to rate comments and the rating would be weighted by the qualifications of the raters (i.e. like Google PageRank).
This would make it more likely that a bright idea (or pertinent question) by someone unqualified gets noticed by the people qualified enough to judge whether the idea has any merit.
The experts can reply to comments or questions by the general public. Others can read these. So the whole thing becomes a teaching resource. A cutting-edge online university where the lessons are based on papers in the process of entering the literature.

Dumbvoter

Who reviews the peers?. I won’t believe anything these days unless it has been cleared by the Ponds Institute.

LearDog

This trend will also eventually extend to scholarly texts and books. Anyone who has purchased either university texts or secondary school books know that the profit margin for these companies is huge. The costs associated just don’t support the pricing. Talk about price-gouging of the Eviil oil companies – these Pulishers are Professionals!
In my opinion – it is indeed a mini-monopoly, where there is an unbalanced transaction – where the ‘public / government’ entity has no power / incentive to say ‘no’ to the pricing policy of the publisher. The student at University has only a couple of options:
1) purchasing used books (even that market is becoming organized), or
2) reading the reserved book in Libraries (not so convienient)).
In addition, Secondary school systems aren’t very adept (or interested) at negotiating for reduced prices because they are not spending their own money anyway. The cost of Education (and HealthCare) have risen faster than inflation for years – leaving one to ask why: degree of open competition? degree to which the government is a poor steward of taxpayer dollars?

Michael Cortie

In my experience (over 150 scientific papers) commercial and society publishers do a good job. I do not begrudge them a margin (=profit) on their contribution. That’s just the Market in operation. Open Access is still a doubtful proposition in my opinion because (1) many of the “journals” popping up to service this market are just “vanity publishers” that take the authors’ money and put up a weakly reviewed e-paper, (2) Open Access shifts the burden of payment in many cases to the authors, and the costs can actually be quite steep!

The huge and winning advantage the science blogosphere has over those dinosaur science journals is money. They can make it, we can’t, and paradoxically, that’s precisely what is killing them.
http://thepointman.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/the-decline-of-popular-science-journals/
Pointman

Skiphil

The PLoS journals (Public Library of Science) have already been at the forefront of online open access for a decade.
http://www.plosone.org/static/information.action
Everyone who has any influence with friends, colleagues, peers who publish scientific articles should already be urging this option on others — it does not have to wait for these changes from govt and national research bodies, which will still take years to take effect even with the best of will and effort (often lacking).
Please consider circulating the link below (I have no connection, it’s simply something I’ve been aware of and applauding for awhile):
http://www.plosone.org
I think that PLoS One is a broad-based journal that aims to be a kind of online “Nature” for all scientific fields (but wide open rather than restrictive).
There are several other PLoS journals so far, mostly oriented toward biomedical fields. Maybe with a boost of interest there will be PLoS journals for every field, or perhaps PLoS One is intended to fill that role for all scientific fields, I’m not sure.

The real complaint seems to be that Elsevier makes a profit for doing all the things required to publish journals of rather limited circulation. So, if it’s all done slickly on line, allowing limited peer review, how is that different from hard copy publishing and science by press release that goes on today? We now have electronic versions. I’m not sure this is much of an improvement.

David Ross

Related News
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/18962349
Last February, a reviewer of German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s doctoral dissertation discovered and documented some plagiarised passages.
[…]
Within days, a group of people formed around a wiki they called GuttenPlag Wiki and proved him to be quite wrong. He had to resign just two weeks later.
That was not the end of it. Soon it was suspected that a major ex-politician’s daughter was guilty of plagiarism in her dissertation, and a new wiki was set up, VroniPlag Wiki, to document this case. Quite soon plagiarism was discovered in yet another dissertation, and it has not stopped. Currently there are 27 documented cases on the site.
[…]
However, it seems that the plague of plagiarism has also reached the level of the professorships in Germany. Those who are supposed to be teaching students have also been caught using copy and paste. Last month it was revealed that more than a third of a new book for law students on how to write papers properly was plagiarised, including liberal smatterings from Wikipedia.
Fittingly, even the chapter on plagiarism was plagiarised. And just to show how contagious the disease is, the authors also cite zu Guttenberg’s dissertation – albeit incorrectly.
[…]
The problem is deep-rooted and systemic. Professors in Germany tend to work alone, with their subordinate research groups. Most will not criticise other professors, and they do not discuss problems, full stop. There is no official vetting or oversight.
For decades in Germany there has been a creeping toleration of scientific misconduct, a looking away when lines were crossed. Anyone who spoke out was quickly silenced. Honest scholars have felt frustrated at seeing others getting away with cutting corners.
[…]
Dissertations need to be published online with open access to permit easy checking, and a random sample of theses defended in the past five years needs to be reviewed in order to identify weak points. However, there is currently no funding for such measures, so it’s unclear whether Germany universities will really get serious about plagiarism, or keep muddling on.
Evidence suggests this is not an exclusively Germany plague, so similar measures may be required in other European countries too, possibly all, to ensure that higher degrees awarded in Europe’s universities continue to attract the respect they deserve.

Andrew

From Canberra times quote “Almost two thirds of people still believe climate change is occurring, but the depth of concern is in decline.” This shows the very low level of scientific education that Australians have been getting for years now.

Darkinbad the Brightdayler

One problem is that the number of true peers is often very few.
As a scientist, you want your work to be reviewed by those peers (often competitors too) who can spot any weakness and raise queries about it as a part of the review process.
The Editor is there to see both the the job is done well and that the reviewer is playing fair.
Not to use true peers is to risk mistakes getting under the radar.
It is a burden being a reviewer and it takes up a good deal of time to do a proper job, check the methodology, logic, statistics, references etc.
Someone outside the immediate field might struggle just to locate the references, never mind figure out if they are appropriate to the paper.
I find it hard to find the time to review more than one paper per year.
To my mind, the system works to the point of publication.
I do feel that, now that re-prints and photocopies have been superceded by pdf files, the justification for charging for disseminating published work has dissapeared.
I don’t have a huge budget and have to judge whether its worth paying for a paper from the abstract and what I know of the authors.

Ian H

I am astonished that the economist buys the story that Elsevier’s margins are as low as 37%. I’d put them several orders of magnitude higher. The scientists write all the material for free. They review and edit it for free. They typeset it for free. Elsevier of course pays for … um … what exactly do they pay for I wonder? With electronic journals these days they don’t even have to pay to get the things printed and shipped.

Geoff Withnell

Ok, not to rain on the parade here, but there ARE costs associated with publishing, scientific papers or anything else. Would someone please explain to me the business model of how these costs are going to be met?

Most peer reviewed papers are wrong.

SanityP

@ Geoff Withnell says:
July 25, 2012 at 4:37 am
Electronic publishing doesn’t cost much. Create a pdf of your article and post it online. Dead cheap.
There is absolutely no reason to print anything.

@Geoff W
There are three models. 1. You pay for every accepted paper. This creates an incentive for editors to accept as many papers as possible. 2. You pay for every submitted paper. This creates an expectation of acceptance with the author. 3. The university or funding agency pays an annual sum to the publisher covering all papers. This does not distort the review of individual papers. It is difficult to negotiate the right price, though.

Meyer

I suspect the only real reason people still publish in journals is because the student/professor/scientist gains social and professional status from publishing articles in respected journals. A “wiki” system needs to account for this if it is to fully replace the journals. It could even provide a faceted reputation system with more information than “published 100 articles” regarding someone’s contributions to their field.
Wikipedia is a poor replacement for scientific journals due to both policy (e.g. “not news” and “not a journal”) and some odd technical choices in the software. It’s frustrating when people put forth Wikipedia as the archetype for online collaborative publishing, and assume other efforts will suffer from the same flaws. For one thing, dividing knowledge up into “articles” is an arbitrary decision and a limitation in the digital world. Let the reader choose the scope of an “article” and dynamically extract it from the knowledge base.

slp

Geoff Withnell says:
July 25, 2012 at 4:37 am
Ok, not to rain on the parade here, but there ARE costs associated with publishing, scientific papers or anything else. Would someone please explain to me the business model of how these costs are going to be met?

There is nothing wrong with making a profit on privately-funded research, but when public-funded it ought to be available to those providing the funding without charge.
And, that 37% profit margin kind of puts Exxon Mobile’s roughly 8% into perspective.

Robber

A first step, but this principle of open access should be extended to all government commissioned studies by external consultants paid for by the tax payer. Despite freedom of information laws, too much is still held for government bureaucrat eyes only.

John Blake

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the point of “peer review” (lately devolved to mere mutual-admiration backscratching) is not to assess the validity of a hypothesis but to screen for ridiculousities such as violation of Conservation Laws while ensuring that all results be strictly replicable.
Absent replication, no hypothesis is scientifically meaningful in any wise. Since “climate studies” exemplars such as Michael Mann uniformly fail to archive data, in many cases even destroy findings to eliminate any “paper trail,” their conclusions are entirely spurious. Failing even the possibility of confirmation, Mann et al. profess entirely junk science on which no researcher of integrity can base any valid conjecture whatsoever.
Cf: Kentti Linkola.

Meyer

“There is nothing wrong with making a profit on privately-funded research, but when public-funded it ought to be available to those providing the funding without charge.”
The primary purpose of copyright law (in the U.S., at least) is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. That is, copyright protection gives people incentive to invest in research and publish results without fear that others will sell the results without making their own investment.
If a work is funded a priori by the government, it should not be granted any copyright protection whatsoever, because the author already has full incentive to publish. And 100+ years of copyright protection should certainly not be transferred to a shady journal that hinders the progress of science and the useful arts by forbidding the free exchange of said tax-funded research.
(Omitted attributions for ironic effect. 🙂 )

Tom in Florida

It is time to identify the reviewers and post their reviews along with the final paper. The combination of knowing the author and the reviewers would go a long way to identifying what should be quality work as opposed to a flimsy excuse for a scientific paper.

John A

How does free to access scientific reports change the culture of hiding and obfuscation of the data, methods and results?
Not at all.
What does it mean for the deliberate undermining of the peer review system by some climate scientists?
Nothing.
The question of how science self-corrects when such key information is hidden and the peer review system broken has yet to be addressed.

rogerknights

Skiphil says:
July 25, 2012 at 3:25 am
I think that PLoS One is a broad-based journal that aims to be a kind of online “Nature” for all scientific fields (but wide open rather than restrictive).
There are several other PLoS journals so far, mostly oriented toward biomedical fields. Maybe with a boost of interest there will be PLoS journals for every field, or perhaps PLoS One is intended to fill that role for all scientific fields, I’m not sure.

How about disgruntled skeptical climatologists getting together and founding a PLOS for climatology? It could/should have been done five years ago.

William Sears

I have to support Geoff Withnell here. There is no such thing as free since the costs have to be paid somehow. This can be done by page charges or institutional subscriptions, both government funded or industry funded. At best you are changing the path of funding which will still probably lead to an increase in taxes. If industry funding disappears it will most certainly lead to an increase in taxes. It may also lead to a decrease in both commercial publishers and independent scientific society publishers, followed by an increase in directly controlled government publishers. I do not think that this is a good thing. Web publishing may, of course, lead to a decrease in cost, but this will happen more efficiently in a free enterprise system. Do we really want more government dictates?

Tom G(ologist)

HOORAY!!!!!!! I am a geologist who is in private practice but also have taught at university continuously throughout my 30 year career and have been an active researcher on issues relevant to my clients’ projects. NOT being an academic (so it is not my actual job to shepherd publications through the mills but to produce economically viable results) I have always found the actual process of publication to be the single largest detriment to making the committment to publish – it is not the actual research, writing and coordination of the research paper itself. That part is intuitively straightforward.
The research publishers do serve a purpose in the same way that publishers of fiction serve a purpose – they have been a screening house, weeding out nonsense and garbarge, so that other researchers who do not want to waste their time filtering out nonsense but get right to the meat of serious findings know where to go. I mean, Amazon is now allow people to self publish their ‘books’ which will be available on line for really cheap prices for a download to a kindle. Can you image all the tripe you will have to slog through to find one decent work of fiction in that mess? With that in mind, I hope the publishers of scientific research learn how to live in the internet world so we can use their filtering abilities and some semblance of the former stodgy peer review process but still have immediate access to real-time publications for a reasonable fee – or in the case of government sponsored research, no fee.

PaulH

From an article by Alexander Cockburn ‘I have committed intellectual blasphemy’, first published on spiked in January 2008. He died on 21 July 2012:
Regarding peer review…
“One way in which critics are silenced is through the accusation that they are ignoring ‘peer-reviewed science’. Yet oftentimes, peer review is a nonsense. As anyone who has ever put his nose inside a university will know, peer review is usually a mode of excluding the unexpected, the unpredictable and the unrespectable, and forming a mutually back-scratching circle. The history of peer review and how it developed is not a pretty sight. Through the process of peer review, of certain papers being nodded through by experts and other papers being given a red cross, the controllers of the major scientific journals can include what they like and exclude what they don’t like. Peer review is frequently a way of controlling debate, even curtailing it. Many people who fall back on peer-reviewed science seem afraid to have out the intellectual argument.”
The complete essay at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12664/

The best peer review system is what we have on WUWT. Qualified readers comment and either show up the stupidity or laud the effort. Vicious SOBs and Trolls are shown up as what they are, and science triumphs (hopefully). The writer can respond back and forth and knock out the idiots or be knocked out. I think that is a pretty good filter for quality.

highflight56433

Looking back a bit, there lots of carvings in stone…very public. Then there was the era of standing in groups to share wisdom and other great thinking….very public. Then greed entered the system during the Renaissance Era (approximation).
We tax payers provide funding for universities who compete for revenue. All universities and agencies receiving any public money are bound to the public. For me to pay ridiculous fees for publicly owned intelligence is a fraud. For us alumni who have privileges to libraries, that is a nice perk. However, the public should have the same access. It is their money paying for the facilities. Students pay, donors pay, public funds pay, private entities donate, state taxes pay, federal funding pays, etc.
The peer review system would be much improved if research was totally open to view. Let all who desire to test/question/legitimize/support/criticize your work have a shot at it. What do you have to hide if it is legitimate?
Then there is greed, the ultimate answer to the evils of this subject. Chisel your work in stone!

This is good news, in my opinion.
Peer review and, later, public review should be better than just one or the other.
The high cost of reading scientific articles should be opposed, I think.
A ranking system could help preventing us from making mistakes and believing some junk science.

Tom in Worc.(usa)

Climate “science” will fight this tooth and nail. They will not go down without a fight. The reason being is they have to know that this is a fight to the death for them. (metaphorically, of course) If they do submit to these rules in Britain, I expect to hear a different tune coming out of climate “science” in the next 15 years or so. Interesting development.