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Peer-Reviewed Research Over The Web 154

Posted by timothy
from the challenging-the-establishment dept.
bhoman writes "The San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com) has an article today about Stanford biochemist Patrick O. Brown, who helped develop low-cost DNA microarrays for gene research. He is seeking $20M to start a foundation that would fund peer-review of research papers and then make them available for free over the web, thereby avoiding the high-cost of subscriptions common in existing research publications. Predictably, some publishers seem to be warning that their publishing model is hard to improve upon. The article mentions that a previous effort by Brown and others, The Public Library of Science garnered the signatures of 30,000 supporters, but then implies that it basically failed, suggesting that academics need the journals more than vice versa. Sounds like Brown's idea is exactly what the web is made for."
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Peer-Reviewed Research Over The Web

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  • Won't Work (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Egoine (22800) on Monday September 02, 2002 @04:26PM (#4185562)
    Good idea, but the article says it all:

    "It's publish or perish," Stern said. "As long as we have promotion and tenure tied to publishing, change won't work."

    sadly.

    That would have been great.

    • Re:Won't Work (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      And it will never change because the people who could implement change are used to the current system and afraid of losing what the system has so far given them.

      And the rest of us just roll over and play dead when the ones who do the hiring and firing say that things will never change. Except for a few like this Pat Brown guy.
  • by CTib (4626) on Monday September 02, 2002 @04:29PM (#4185574)
    Yes!! I heard many years ago about efforts to replace the completely broken journal/subscription of today with a peer-review/web-of-trust. Problem is, there's a market of sci. journals for a reason! Scientific excellence became a screwed notion immediately after the WWII years, when the Iron Courtain broke in two (reasonably equal halves) the older web of trust. Scientific excellence has now to be quantitatively defined, by number of articles published, especially. This is very wrong, of course.

    Thus, we first need to change our perception of scientific excellence and _then_ put in place a peer-review mechanism. And the new perceptions needs a peer-review mechanism in order to be reformed properly. Hen or egg? :-/
    • that a "+5 Insightful" on slashdot will count towards tenure and promotion?
    • I am one of the few graduate students who published in a journal as an undergrad, and I think you should know what goes into the publishing process (for IEEE publications, which covers almost all respected peer-reviewed computing journals).

      Traditionally, you first have to have the article published in a conference, which requires for you to
      1) Write the article
      2) Go to the conference and present your work

      Submission to a conference usually happens approximately six months before the actual conference. You get acceptance about a month after submission (or you get rejection). Most conferences have an acceptance rate of 50% or worse, meaning that they turn away HALF of the applicants.

      The process of selection is done by assigning reviews to major professors in the field who are not submitting to the conference. These professors sometimes pass the review work along to some of their best grad students (this happened several times in a lab that I worked in).

      After you are accepted, you send the final version, which includes any changes you may have made to the rough draft, and then go to the conference.

      The next step is a journal article. This usually includes some additional fleshing out of the article. Most conference procedings are between 4 and 8 pages; journal articles can be as long as you can get it to be. You want it longer, because the longer it is, the more likely that the people reading it will understand and want to use your idea, because you can explain it upteen ways and provide numerous examples of why your [whatever it is] works well, which always leads to good things for a journal article writer's career.

      That often takes a while as well. Once you submit the journal article, you get a preliminary acceptance contingent upon making changes after three months of review. Of course, once again acceptance is less than 50%, usually, but if you publish in a conference first, your chances are significantly higher than if you don't. You have an incredibly powerful idea to make it without a conference first.
      The reviewers in this case are required to make a very careful inspection of the article to ensure that
      1) the theories presented are useful
      2) the theories make sense
      3) the paper is written well enough to be readable

      Reviewers are also required to find ALL spelling and grammer mistakes, and they have to understand the methods presented within the paper well enough to make a summary of the journal article. Also, reviewers are the same as before - experts in the field (college professors) who are not submitting to the journal at the time of the review.

      These reviewers give you a report, accepting contingent upon meeting their requirements (or defending why you can't).

      You then have to submit again and your article is once again edited for approximately 6 months.

      If you REALLY rush, this entire process takes one year, however realistically, it usually takes two. (Yeah, I started the game as a junior in college).

      Now, I don't care if we do this online. IEEE has a research engine called IEEE Xplore, which is often purchased by research institutions such as Universities. It has the whole database of IEEE publications within it.

      But I don't know how to get a much better peer-review process than this; its pretty darn strict. So professors can't just whip of papers like nobody's business - they really have to put some work into it. If they have a lot of papers, it means they've done a lot of stuff that at least six other experts (for each paper - sometimes more) believe to have merit.
  • The journal publishers provide nothing more than a peer-mating service and copyediting.

    The question isn't whether that can be done more efficiently in electronic form, because clearly it's a slam-dunk economization.

    The question is whether it can be done at a total cost lower than one at which the journal publishers can afford to compete. Their marginal costs are minimal, as their capital and organization are already in place. All they need to do is reduce their profits to non-greedhead levels. If they're forced to eliminate the hardcopy publications, that's probably a minimal net cost, too. The tax benefits of the writedowns would pay for the capital expansion of the new network and server capacity.

    I don't know what their margins are now. A few bucks per issue? Half?

    While most of us would love to receive Phys Rev Lett A for $3 a month, I don't think it'll happen whether or not it's on the net. The demand just doesn't exceed the supply.

    --Blair
    "Well, I would love it."
    • I agree, that the journal publishers provide nothing more than a peer-mating service and copyediting.
      That's why I find it a scandal that they charge that much for a copy. It is not, that they actually have pay to much for, because AFAIK peer-review is done for the fame alone. As I see it, they get copyright on articles, written by tax-funded researchers... and earn quite well on it.

      I would be very much on favour for kind of a GPL for research papers. Anyone knows about such tendencies?

      (By the way: I always found this link [nec.com] quite useful)

      • I would be very much on favour for kind of a GPL for research papers

        The problem here is that software is a concrete representation of an abstract algorithm. It's immediately demonstrable by running it and observing what it does.

        Science however is largely communicated in the form of equations, diagrams, and laboratory procedures. The more complicated a theory is, the more difficult it is to verify. Historically science has solved the more simple problems first, and then worked toward the more complex. This has left us with a legacy of very difficult, complicated problems. So the question is, how do we keep up with the increasing complexity of scientific theory?

        In science, once an idea has been "confirmed" to be legitimate, it is then "accepted" by a very large community who begin to do work with the new theory as a basis. So naturally it's very important to be certain that the theory is correct.

        The Manhattan Project for instance cost taxpayers $2.2 billion. Back then that was a very significant percentage of the entire US defense budget. The military went out on a limb because the best minds in science all concurred that it was a realistic possibility.

        The only way that industry will have that same kind of respect/trust in science is if they are assured that they best and brightest have verified the findings. And like most things in this country....everyone has a price....the best journals offer the biggest pay to the best minds, because industry is willing to pay for the information that is produced.

        The point is, that the a-bomb represented a very large shift away from science as "discovery" to science as "industry". Today there is very little distinction remaining between advanced engineering and science. They are both funded by the same people, for the same purpose.

  • The journals accept contributions from academics, then have volunteer academics review them, publishing ths results. For this they charge the academics who provided the content and editorial screening a stiff price, as well as acquiring a 95-year lock against anyone else disseminating the research.

    Yeah, I can see how that model is about as close to perfect as it could be.

  • Publication is more than just printing edited and reviewed summaries of research; which publication accepts and publishes your draft plays a big part in the respectability and visibility of your research, and thus the respectability and visibility of your career. While publishing on the web probably will have a great effect on letting anybody who wants to publish low-cost do so, by the very "everyone can do it" nature of it, many researchers, I imagine, will only publish their very best work in currently respected paper journals. Some may not publish on the web at all.
    • Most researchers will attempt to publish whatever they can whether it be good or bad work. This is the nature of keeping your job in academia. That magical line of integrity can move around a lot when going for tenure. There is no lack of bad, trivial and non-substantive research sitting on the library shelves. The anonymous peer-review process is as lengthy as it is flawed. Next time you visit your university library take a look at the size of a volume of something like Phys Rev or J. Phys. and compare it to the size of 20 years ago. The increase in scientific production does not necessarily translate to mostly good or significant science.

  • Researchers have been clamoring for this since at least 1995 [bmj.com].

    It's about time. Entire libraries should be digitized and and available to all by now - the least we can do is make lifesaving biomedical technology available without a torturous middleman content industry.

  • by twistedcubic (577194) on Monday September 02, 2002 @04:44PM (#4185625)
    Not that Geometry and Topology [warwick.ac.uk] is the only one, but this is a very good example.
    • Indeed - and I'm very happy that it's my department that keep this journal going. But it's only a very small drop in a very very large bucket, and I haven't seen very many journals following suit.

      Part of the problem is that the publishing rights for most of the journals are owned by two or three *incredibly* large conglomorates - who really seem to be squeezing as much money as they can from the journals in the last few years. For example, the cost of 'buying' the right to make a copy of an article in something like 'Advanced in Applied Mathematics' is double what it was five years ago.
    • I'm glad someone mentioned G&T [warwick.ac.uk], and not just because my PhD supervisor is one of the managing editors, and my MSc supervisor is the other one :)

      If I remember correctly, the whole thing was sparked off by Rob Kirby's article [berkeley.edu] on the pricing of research journals. There's an interesting article by Joan Birman in the Notices of the AMS (vol 4, no. 7, Aug 2000, pp770-774) which discusses the various issues, and includes detailed discussion of the day-to-day overheads of running a free, properly peer-refereed research journal. It's available [columbia.edu] from her web page, in PostScript form.

      G&T (and its sister journal Algebraic and Geometric Topology, and the related Monograph series) isn't some low-quality vanity-press thing - it's a real, proper, peer-refereed journal with high standards. At a quick glance, I recognise the names of three Fields medallists on the editorial board, as well as some other very eminent names in the field. And yet it's being run with virtually no overheads by two university lecturers (one of whom is semi-retired) in addition to their normal departmental duties (lecturing, administration, supervising research students).

      I understand that a lot of the procedure is automated, with a mixture of TeX and Perl, with copies of all articles being submitted to the arXIv [arxiv.org].

      Ah yes, I'd almost forgotten about the arXiv. A central repository for research preprints in mathematics, physics, and computer science. It's an unrefereed archive for research announcements, preliminary reports, and preprints. Papers submitted to refereed journals often take up to a couple of years to actually appear in print, so the idea is that you issue a preliminary version of your paper to faster communicate your ideas to anyone else who might be interested.

      This stuff is great - it's all about collaborative research and the free and efficient sharing of ideas, and it gives me a great sense of hope for the future.

      -- nicholas
  • Why is he asking for $20 million dollars for free research....Distribution may be free on the web but not the creation of the information
  • by Dthoma (593797)
    "Predictably, some publishers seem to be warning that their publishing model is hard to improve upon."

    Well what the heck were you expecting them to say? "Oh, do please go ahead, because we're sure this is all for the good of science and mankind?"

  • maybe the could instead reverse the concept and build a service which would allow people to request a peer-review on certain research work. Maybe it could be easier to find the funding like this - also the scientist-community like the 30,000 supporters who signed in support the "The Public Library of Science" effort, could mass-fund the peer-reviews.

    They will, anyway have limited funding for the reviews and can never cover everything, so why not target it based on demand. Or...is this how it works already? :)

  • Pedigree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BWJones (18351) on Monday September 02, 2002 @05:02PM (#4185691) Homepage Journal
    Speaking as someone who just submitted an article to Science for review, I would have to say the primary hurdle that Brown will have to overcome is pedigree. Journals like Science and Nature have a history and an editorial board that ensure a rigorous review process that ultimately presents the best of the best and the most significant science to the scientific community. Publication of ones work in journals of this caliber are important to your career, and given their wide distribution can be critical in obtaining funding.

    The implications of this are far more than simple "peer mating" and "copy editing" as one other poster suggested. Granted, there is nothing that can keep an online journal from eventually becoming the place to publish, but it will take time and a commitment to excellence that will have to be maintained for scientists to become comfortable in submitting their hard earned results to. Publication of observational science will not cut it. The implication of this is that since most scientists view Science and Nature (among a select few) as the pre-eminent journals, they will be concerned about submitting the most significant scientific results to a new online journal. Typically from what I have seen, when one gets rejected from the more prestigious journals, you start moving down your ladder of preference until somebody accepts your article. Of course results targeted for specific journals with a readership that would be interested in your results always matters and this is where online journals stand the best chance of making it as opposed to large pre-eminent general interest scientific journals such as Science and Nature.

    • Re:Pedigree (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Foamy (29271)
      I agree that Science and Nature are the place to publish, but the quality of the many of the articles in the biological sciences is shoddy at best. Granted there are a good deal of seminal papers that come out in Science or Nature, but there are an equal, if not greater, number of 'flash in the pan' papers which are never corroborated, or are plain wrong.


      The reasons for this are many IMO. First there is a huge amount of politics that go into getting past the first hurdle when submitting to these two journals--that is, not getting immediately rejected as "not of sufficient general interest or scientific impact."

      Second, often the reviews are, as the AC put it, "fast-tracked" once the first hurdle is overcome. I would like to learn what the acceptance rate is for acticle that receive peer review...I bet it is very high.

      Third, the extremely limited space allowed for articles in these two journals precludes the possiblity of (i) a thorough review, (ii) an in depth presentation and discussion of the data, and (iii) a complete and utter inability for other researchers to test and replicate the findings.

      I always take articles in Science and Nature with a huge grain of salt. After citing a recent nature article as evidence for pursuing a specific line of research, one of my graduate mentors told me, "Don't believe anything you read in Science of Nature" until it shows up in one of the less prestigious, but more focused journals.

      That said, publishing in these two will definitely get your CV noticed when you apply for that faculty position and I wouldn't hesitate a second to publish there if I could...unless of course I thought my work would get into Cell.

      • Please mod parent up!

        Just because it's in nature/science doesn't mean it's true. I've experienced this politics. Most often you need to be well known in the field to publish to these journals irrespective of how significant/important your results are.
    • "...I would have to say the primary hurdle that Brown will have to overcome is pedigree."

      At UC Berkeley, I have seen pedigree successfully acquired through exclusivity. Its Women's Studies Program started out with only one person in it. They didn't want more than one graduate, otherwise the perceived quality of their diploma would have been diluted. Hopefully, Brown will have the guts to implement similar measures.

    • Pedigree and its offspring prestige are of course the vital ingredients of important journals.
      Mathematics is fortunate in that the most prestigious journal is owned by a university with a quite enlightened outlook. Annals of Mathematics is now an overlay of the matematics eprint arXiv.
      Other less fortunate disciplines may not be able to make such a leap without switching favourite journals.
    • Of course you're right. But...

      He has another way to achieve notoriety. If he can grow his lay-readership bigger than the more obscure journals, he might be able to draw submissions away from them. People doing library research will still have access to the articles if he gets them in the major indexes. He wouldn't have to focus on a specific genre of scientific inquiry, and he doesn't have a limit on the volume he could publish. His initial competitors for paper submittal wouldn't be Psychology, or even Linguistics. It would be the second-place journals that have impeccable but not groundbreaking research. I'm sure there are thousands of these journals. And I'm sure they sometimes have to turn down stories simply to conserve space.

      By aiming for more obscure subjects, he could become a clearinghouse for all types of research, so long as it is perfectly rigorous. Eventually he might be able to draw submissions from the massive journals just because the researchers want their papers to be more available.
  • by kcbrown (7426) <slashdot@sysexperts.com> on Monday September 02, 2002 @05:04PM (#4185697)
    Bear with me on this, please, and please correct any errors I might make here.

    The whole point behind science, its entire reason to exist, is to provide us with a predictive explanation of the world around us. It needs the "many eyes" approach more than just about any other human endeavor, because the entire point is to model the real world and you can't do that without a lot of observation.

    Of course, science has also proven to be useful, and that's been something of an anathema to it. The reason is that things which are useful are things which people (corporations in particular) want to capitalize on in an exclusive way. It seems to me that there was a time when everyone recognized the truth that public disclosure and widespread collaboration is necessary for science to advance.

    That no longer seems to be the case from where I sit. Today, corporations fund a great deal of research at the university level, and there is a great deal of pressure from both corporations and from the universities themselves to keep ongoing research under wraps as much as possible, in order to maximize the chances not just of publishing but also of getting patents on the results (which are probably then transferred to the corporations that funded the research).

    Those people in the scientific community that I've spoken to believe, to a man, in collaboration with their peers in order to further science. They're held up by the people that fund their research.

    How does this relate to publishing on the web? Well, publishing on the web removes a lot of the exclusivity that currently exists, so there will naturally be opposition to it from those who benefit from the control they have over scientific publishing right now. And my cynical mind tells me that there's a good chance that those who fund research exert an additional level of control through the current publishers (it would make sense, right?). It's my hope that research over the web will help in reducing the amount of exclusivity that seems to exist currently in the scientific community. But then, that's probably wishful thinking.

    As long as that level of exclusivity exists, our understanding of the universe won't advance as quickly as it might otherwise. Perhaps things have always been this way and I'm just pining for better days that have never existed. But if there's even a chance that publishing on the web will improve the amount of collaboration and peer review, I think it's worth doing.

    But this proposal doesn't do much to help with that, because it still concentrates the power of peer review and publishing into the hands of a few. What prevents researchers from collaborating with each other, getting peer review from each other, and publishing on the web directly, instead of going through middlemen like they do now? Seems to me that they're being held up by those that fund the research. And unfortunately, this proposal wouldn't change that.

    Yes, it's a step in the right direction, and the current scientific publishers need some competition. But it shouldn't be seen as the end goal.

    • Yes, a good deal of university research is funded by industry. Yes, some of that research is conducted for the exclusive use of the funders (i.e., not published). However, I would argue that a vast majority of all university research does not suffer from such publication restrictions (in whole or in part).

      A good deal of corporate funding for university research does not carry with it any NDA.

      The biggest hurdles to net publishing (as others have mentioned) are entrenched publishers and the reputations of journals.

      If the problem were corporate gag orders, we wouldn't have the tremendous academic output we have today. The fact is, that there are more articles being submitted than are (or should be) published.

      Publishers manage the peer review process by providing a limited number of outlets, each with a perceived level of quality. If you could ever read some of the manuscripts that get rejected by even the best journals, you'd recognize the importance of the peer review filter.

      Now, if a researcher finishes a study, and wants to publicize her results (for personal gain, e.g., tenure, and to advance The Cause of Science), she will look to present it in a respected forum. Sure, she could make a bunch of photocopies and mail them out, or she could post them on her personal web site, but to do so would give the appearance that the quality of the work is unknown (See Wolfram for an exception). However, if a bunch of respected peers in her field agree that her work is worthy of publication in a respected journal, people may take notice.

      A peer reviewed internet publisher can succeed, but it would have to develop a positive reputation, maintain quality editors and reviewers, and be at least as accessible as paper journals (e.g., be listed in library databases).

      One approach is to build such a system from scratch (see this article), another is to transition from existing journals (many of which now offer online versions to subscribers). Each have their strengths and weaknesses.

      It is important to note that publishing is pretty expensive, even without the costs of printing and delivering journals.
      • It seems that perhaps I didn't make one of my points (perhaps the most important one) very clear. Allow me to try again.

        The problem with the system as it exists today isn't that findings don't get published. They clearly do, and they clearly get peer reviewed. The problem is that the researcher is restricted in how much collaboration he can engage in prior to publication. That restriction comes from the fact that for the researcher to gain "recognition" in the current system, he has to be the first to publish on the topic of the specific research. By publicly collaborating with others, the researcher might compromise his position: someone else might end up publishing first.

        Now, it seems to me that in the past, getting there first wasn't as big a deal as it is now. You might not gain quite as much prestige as a result of collaborating with others but you might gain a great deal of insight (and so would your collaborators), and that would serve to advance science very nicely. But today corporations fund most of the research that happens and as I said, they want patents. Since getting a patent depends on you getting there first, collaboration to the degree I'm talking about can prevent you from getting the patent you (or, rather, the corporation that is bankrolling the research) are after. And that means that the corporation that is funding the research, and thus the university you're doing the research for, will naturally forbid you from collaborating with others until you're ready to publish.

        Now, this is speculation on my part, but I would guess that science publishers, and the peer reviewers that work for them, sign nondisclosure agreements that forbid them from saying anything about the work being submitted until the work is published. Once the work is published, the clock starts ticking and the researcher has one year to file a patent. The published research acts as proof that the researcher got there first. If things really work as I suspect, then it follows that the corporation funding the research will insist on the researcher publishing through one of the science publishers precisely because they'll sign the NDA, and thus the clock for getting the patent won't start until the peer review process is complete and the research is published.

        If the researcher instead published directly on the web, the peer review wouldn't begin until that point in time. But the clock for getting a patent would then start at the beginning of the peer review period and not the end, so the risk of being forced to obtain a patent on something that hasn't been fully peer-reviewed would be significantly greater. For instance, if the researcher publishes their findings on the web, and sufficient peer review on the web ends up taking an additional 10 months, that would leave only 2 months that the researcher could file for the patent. The corporation funding the research would obviously find that situation unacceptable.

        This is why I think corporate-funded university research is a bad idea: it prevents researchers from collaborating as much as they're probably naturally inclined to (many, perhaps most, researchers aren't in the game for the patents, but are instead in it for the recognition and the advancement of their field), and it keeps the science publishers in their position as gatekeepers of research publication. Most importantly, it puts the goals of the corporation (making as much money as possible, no matter the means) above the goals of science.

        I hope that clarifies things a bit...

  • This is also a problem with software-engineering papers. Probably one of the reasons for the lack of real software-engineering skills among programmers is the fact that, unlike coding tutorials which can be found en masse and for free on the net, most of the seminal SE papers are not freely available. They are only available against payment. Most self-teaching programmers are not able/willing to pay that much. Additionally many seminal SE papers from the 70s and 80s are not available on the net at all. In order to read them you will have to have access to some Computer Science faculty that has the old issues of the journals (and who has such access?).

    If SE researchers really want their studies applied by the community, they should not publish them in journals that require payment for access to the papers.
  • The model for much computer science research in the systems areas (networking, OS, etc.) is surprisingly close to open. The major publication players are USENIX [usenix.org], ACM [acm.org], and IEEE [ieee.org]. Of these, USENIX and ACM make all publications available on the web for free. IEEE digital library subscriptions are pretty affordable, and for all of these, subscriptions to the journals themselves are also affordable. An ACM Sigcomm membership (4 issues of CCR) is $23 year, $10 for students. Journal subscriptions are about $40/year.

    Much of this has to do with CS researchers forcing the conference publishers to allow distribution of papers via personal webpages. Once you have that, the rest follows.

    But in fairness, Nature [nature.org] is only $160/year ($100 students), which covers 52 issues. Of course, you have to put up with advertising and pay a subscription...

    • This is one aspect of the problem, the research model of Comp Scie is an engineering model, that is distinct from the model of physics and completely different from the arts.

      When Sokol made his idiotic point about the arts 'journal' Social Texts the points never made by any of the attacks on post-modernism were that (1) the journal is not that prominent in the field and (2) getting an article in a journal of that sort is like getting an article accepted by Slashdot, it means precisely nothing.

      Sokol's wider point that lots of people in the arts are pretentious farts is completely correct. However it is only a special case of the more general truth that many people in every academic field are pretentious farts.

      The point is that in science the litterature has a specific role, it reports incremental discoveries. There is also a secondary role in reporting theories, however this is vastly overrated by the scientists as the Popper/Kuhne debate demonstrated.

      The engineering litterature is quite different because it is in almost every case a secondary litterature. We publish our major findings as books, manuals, programs and documentation. If I want to find the latest on any piece of work I go to the Web.

      The arts litterature is different again because there are no right answers. Points are awarded not for what is said but how it is said. Of course this is not science, but nobody ever claimed it was. For example Searle's 'Chinese Room' argument is a basic text of the philosophy of AI. It didn't get that status because anyone agreed with it and found it perceptive, in fact the reverse, everyone has multiple ways to demolish the argument which is of course the point, I can't publish my rebuttal of Searle without giving him yet another citation. I call texts of that type Koan texts because the role they play is completely separate from whether the argument is correct or even whether the argument is correctly stated. McLuhan falls into the same category, he is almows always wrong on pretty much every assertion he makes (television is a COLD medium? - NOT!), however reading his books is a useful way to start thinking about things.

      So given that the litterature is not monolithic and serves multiple purposes, what can be done? Well first look at the way that the publishing houses established themselves. They started off by publishing the proceedings of conferences. These are a very special form of publication because they are largely stand alone and the whole editorial infrastructure is ready made.

      People send papers to conferences so they can go to the conference, not necessarily just to get publication credits. The prominence of the conference is independent of the prominence of the journal.

      The way to get open publication off the ground is to start by publishing conference proceedings. Get a small number of the worlds most prominent research libraries to kick in some funds to maintain a server infrastructure - MIT, Stanford, Oxford Bodleian, Cambridge, the cost would be less than the cost of a few journals and certainly less than the cost of book storage! Start small and work up, don't try to displace Science and Nature on the first day. Most journals are nowhere near that level of credibility, start with the low hanging fruit.

  • See Stevan Harnad's page [princeton.edu] and SSRN [ssrn.com] for examples of progress. The problem is very simple: inertia. Scholars have no interest whatsoever in propretary journals. The web could totally replace scholarly publication. People make up all sorts of reasons not change, but that is the nature of people. It will happen. The objectors have to die off first.
  • This is already happening in Artificial Intelligence. The Journal of AI Research (JAIR) [washington.edu], and The Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) [jmlr.org] are peer-reviewed journals published on the web for free.

    I'm not sure what the $20 million is for, since (at least in AI) peer-review is done for free anyway, as a service to the community. The big journals charge money while getting editing, review, and often even typsetting for free from their editorial boards or authors.

    Since peer-review is the main service provided by the big journals, it was only a matter of time before the reviewers organized themselves. The tenure issue is a bit of a problem, since untenured faculty will want to publish in the best established journals. However, that should work itself out over time, as tenured researchers choose to publish in the new free journals. Eventually the new journals will be well enough established for young researchers to feel comfortable publishing in them.

  • It seems that the article does not mention the advantages to having research be centrally located. Granted this is more about a theory than an implementation, but I think that the ability to search through the actual *text* of many different areas of science could be useful.
  • I think that the current method of publishing findings is going
    to be kept alive indefinitely by the people who thrive in the
    environment. Prestige is important, and those who filter through
    the peer review 'moderation' of the important journals certainly
    deserve it, and will get the funding to publish again during
    their next study. The only people who are left behind are the
    people who have brilliant insight, but don't have the patience or
    skills to jump through academic hoops and climb the academic ladder.

    The magic of the web is that people are going to be able to
    transcend the limits of paper publishing.

    Online laboratories where traditional researchers can share not
    only their results, but the material at issue itself in digital
    form. Check out the University of Iowa's virtual microscope,
    which is currently used for educational purposes.
    http://www.medicine.uiowa.edu/pathology /uarep_hist opathology/content_index_db.html

    There's another demonstration site, where people can point out
    phenomena in huge images created from a microscope...
    http://neuroinformatica.com The implications of online images
    of this size and quality are huge.

    One paper which is tied up by Elsivier IP is a PDF file which
    shows regions of the Macaque brain dyed with six different stains
    that each show different phenomena. In the PDF file are links to
    the full-size full-color images, which very much increases the
    value of the publication.

    Not only is the whole peer review process going to be
    accelerated, but an online simulation of the phenomena being
    studied will be able to grow and get more accurate with each
    researcher's contribution.

    Purdue has several simulations of yeast growth online, with the
    source available.
    http://www.hort.purdue.edu/cfpesp/models/models. ht m

    My dream is of an online simulation where people can add little
    hypothesis in the form of python scripts. The scripts which pass
    peer review as properly reflecting the physical phenomena are
    kept, and can accumulate into an accurate simulation of complex
    systems (maybe even parts of the human brain eventually)

    Even once the web pages let collaborators/peers accelerate the
    scientific process, the results will still be published by the
    traditional methods for years to come. (in my humble opinion)
    To many researchers, scientific work has not been done until it
    shows up in the prestigious journals.

  • Our experience (Score:5, Insightful)

    by apsmith (17989) on Monday September 02, 2002 @05:29PM (#4185816) Homepage
    I work for the Physical Review [aps.org] journals at the American Physical Society [aps.org], and I've been somewhat involved in these debates from the physics publisher side of things for the last 8 or so years - for example in the American Scientist [amsci.org] Forum discussion that's been going on since 1998...


    Anyway, I wish Brown all the best success, but as others have mentioned, it's a somewhat harder problem than it first seems (at least he's asking for $20 million, which is somewhat realistic for handling real peer review for a substantial number of articles - 10's of thousands at least).


    What's behind this nebulous "peer review" concept, at least for us, is a complex and historically based system of checks and balances involving communications between authors, editors, and (anonymous and non-anonymous) reviewers; we're essentially a legal/court system for scientific articles. There's a lot of information-related issues in there, and information technology helps a lot (that's the part I'm involved in). But fundamentally, at least the way we do it, there needs to be a paid, responsible human being reading most communications and monitoring the process, and as far as we've been able to work out, you can't get the cost under about $500 or so per article.


    Now, just distributing the papers can be done essentially for free (to as many people as would want to read for about $1-5 per article, for hardware, software, disk, network, etc.) which is what the famous physics e-print archive [arxiv.org] does so well. Of course it doesn't cost publishers any more than that to distribute articles online either - the costs are in the review part (and whatever copyediting they do), not in distribution.


    You'll hear about journals now that are essentially free - this is almost always for one of two reasons:

    1. The journal is very small, and some institution is picking up all the salary and incidental costs - $500/article works out to just $50,000/year for a 100 article/year journal.
    2. The journal is heavily skimping on the "peer review" side of things - publishing conference proceedings papers for example with no review beyond the acceptance of the paper at the conference. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not what we normally mean by peer review.


    Given the $500/article cost, the other question is does science really need this level of peer review, or can it get by with less? Well, we've already seen a couple of instances of scientific fraud that slipped by in physics in the last few months even with the current level of review - is skimping really a good idea? And is the $500 minimal cost or even $1000-$2000 typical cost per article now all that bad, compared to the typical $50,000-$100,000 research grant that generally funded such research?


    Yet another proposed solution has been to publish fewer papers in those journals that receive the full peer-review treatment. Unless authors miraculously constrain themselves somehow, the only way that would save us money would be to reject a lot of things without review (because the costs are in the review process itself) - but then you've thrown out the whole "peer" process you're using to determine what's published!


    So, maybe Brown has found a way through this morass - but the scientific system has a complex, little studied dynamic in which peer review as it currently stands plays an important role... if we really can't afford it (the old way) any more, we're headed into some uncharted waters...

    • Perhaps I'm simply misinformed... but when I was last in the High Energy Physics community the e-print archive [arxiv.org] was the definitive reference.

      One never actually fell back to the journals unless the paper predated the early 90s. People would reference other peoples work via the e-print archive reference number. e-prints circulated so widely that most major papers had already been read and reviewed by the relavent people long before it actually hit the official peer review process at the journals. By the time a paper made it into the journals it was VERY old news.

      Yes, people still submitted their papers to the standard APS journals for publication, but nobody read them. Everybody read the e-print archive. Most people couldn't even tell you what journal most of the articles had been published in, nobody cared.


      • when I was last in the High Energy Physics community the e-print archive was the definitive reference.

        High Energy Physics isn't all of physics; also our publication schedule is fast enough now we can get things up online a week or two after we receive them, if it's justified. Do people read everything in the arxiv? Maybe in those fields that are limited enough. But what we in the journal business do is sift through those submissions and try to point out the ones that are important. The arxiv caused us to do our job better - as far as I can tell, we seem to have reached a sort of peaceable coexistence...
        • Do people really read everything in AIP journals? Nobody I knew did. But I did know several people who would go to look at what was new this morning on arxiv.org in their field ( and possibly related fields ). They'd scan through a couple of pages of new preprints looking for people whose work they knew to be worth reading, or for abstracts that sounded promising.

          Perhaps the AIP has gained some celerity recently. I would hope so, but I suspect the value proposition offered by the traditional AIP journals is wearing very thin in many subdisciplines ( like hep-* etc. ).

          • I work for APS, not AIP. Two quite different organizations, though related. AIP journals are mostly in applied or interdisciplinary areas.

            Anyway, the point was of course nobody reads our journals cover to cover (though I used to do that with PRL about 10 years ago) - there's too much! That's exactly why a well-known authority in the form of a journal is needed in most fields. People do browse through the titles and abstracts, and they search for particular subject areas they're interested in. Helping that somewhat now are the Virtual Journals [virtualjournals.org] that provide a subject-specific cut through a series of high-quality peer-reviewed journals, and seem to be quite popular.

            The "value proposition" may be wearing thin, but interestingly enough Phys Rev D (which covers the hep-* related areas) has seen faster submission growth than most of our other journals the last few years, so there must be a lot of authors that see some value in going through our processes...
    • This argument hinges on the supposedly inevitable cost of $500/article for editorial work. There are several problems with this:

      1. Journals like Physical Review often have a near monopoly, and monopolists have no incentive to be efficient. For example, I used to publish in Phys Rev and Phys Rev Letters, and there weren't a lot of alternatives. The only real alternative to PRL in my field (nuclear physics) was Phys Lett, and for a long paper, Phys Rev was basically the only journal that was an option, if you wanted to publish in one that would be in most libraries.
      2. The open-source movement has demonstrated that, given the proper ego-motivation, people will do a lot of things for free that you'd think you'd have to pay them to do.
      3. Paper journals like Phys Rev have to pay for paper, printing, and binding, which forces them into following one of the basic assumptions of pre-internet publishing: the people who distribute the publication have to be the same people as (or have to work closely with) the people who judge its quality. In the digital era, there is no reason why the quality-control step has to come before the publishing step, or be tied to it organizationally.
      4. Apsmith describes free journals like this: The journal is heavily skimping on the "peerreview" side of things - publishing conference proceedings papers for example with no review beyond the acceptance of the paper at the conference. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not what we normally mean by peer review. This simply begs the question of whether there is anything inherently good about "what we normally mean by peer review." Your colleagues are going to form opinions of the quality and reliability of your work anyway. A lot of bad and/or unimportant stuff gets published in journals, so peer reviewing simply doesn't fulfill the whole function of quality control. Since we need further quality-control beyond traditional peer-reviewing, why do we need traditional peer-reviewing? Well, we've already seen a couple of instances of scientific fraud that slipped by in physics in the last few months even with the current level of review - is skimping really a good idea? Here's a triumph of illogic: traditional peer-reviewing is works badly; therefore we must continue to use it.
      5. Referring to the same characterization of free journals as low-quality small-fry operations, I'm sorry, but this sounds very much like what any monopolist would say about someone else trying to break into the field. Microsoft will try to persuade people not to use Linux or MacOS based on this same kind of argument: Eat shit! Ten million flies can't be wrong!
      • Re:Our experience (Score:3, Insightful)

        by apsmith (17989)
        Well :-)

        Are we a "near monopoly"? There are hundreds of physics journals out there, in competition for authors and readers. It's a pretty free market, in my opinion, though you'll hear all sorts of arguments on that front. I assume we receive so many papers because we do our job well. Even though we publish a lot, I believe the total number of physics articles published worldwide (and we receive about 70% of our submissions from outside the US) is about five times our volume. And there's always Science or Nature!

        Now the economics are a little odd because we sell subscriptions primarily to libraries, which are sort of a captive market. However, you'd be surprised at the number of small colleges and public libraries and such that subscribe - if they weren't happy, what reason would they have to continue?

        The key point is your #4:

        This simply begs the question of whether there is anything inherently good about "what we normally mean by peer review." Your colleagues are going to form opinions of the quality and reliability of your work anyway. A lot of bad and/or unimportant stuff gets published in journals, so peer reviewing simply doesn't fulfill the whole function of quality control. Since we need further quality-control beyond traditional peer-reviewing, why do we need traditional peer-reviewing?


        I don't know that we do. Perhaps we don't. It's an experiment worth trying. But is it an experiment that's sufficiently important to have the government force it on us (as some have suggested)?


        Here's a triumph of illogic: traditional peer-reviewing is works badly; therefore we must continue to use it.

        Ummm. So you're in favor of more rigorous review? Wouldn't that be more expensive? It seems to me the current system works reasonably well, is improving in speed and efficiency, and at only a couple of percent of research dollars, is reasonably affordable.

        The main complaint of the public library of science people etc. seems to have been that the research isn't available free online. Well, in our happy medium in physics we have no problem with researchers posting their research on their own web sites, or on the e-print server, etc. Go ahead and do it! That makes it available free - but don't expect the journal publishers to make everything free for you; we're doing a different job here.
        • Are we a "near monopoly"? There are hundreds of physics journals out there, in competition for authors and readers. It's a pretty free market, in my opinion, though you'll hear all sorts of arguments on that front.
          Undoubtedly Microsoft would argue that they are not monopolists, because there are so many other operating systems out there. The trouble is that libraries can't afford to subscribe to hundreds of journals. Also, there has been a lot of consolidation in the journal market recently. IIRC, Elsevier bought up a large number of previously independent journals and then proceeded to raise their prices exorbitantly.

          But is it an experiment that's sufficiently important to have the government force it on us (as some have suggested)?
          I don't think you should be able to have it both ways. Your business is largely based on government-funded research. If you want to feed at the public trough, then you need to expect that the government will have something to say about it. To me, it seems absurd that papers describing publicly funded research should be the intellectual property of a particular organization. In this digital age, there is no justification for that.

          Ummm. So you're in favor of more rigorous review? Wouldn't that be more expensive?
          No. I'm saying that there is already more rigorous review going on: the process by which one's colleagues form their opinion of one's published work. The kind of peer review done by journals is not particularly useful, because the it sets the bar so low. A high percentage of published academic papers are never referenced in the later literature, which indicates that it had no impact in its field.

          The main complaint of the public library of science people etc. seems to have been that the research isn't available free online.Well, in our happy medium in physics we have no problem with researchers posting their research on their own web sites, or on the e-print server, etc. Go ahead and do it! That makes it available free - but don't expect the journal publishers to make everything free for you; we're doing a different job here.
          That's a more enlightened policy than those of some other journals, and I commend you for it. But you own the copyrights, and there is nothing to stop you from turning around tomorrow and suing arxiv.org. In fact, it's quite common for commercial publishers to experiment with a tolerant attitude toward free digital distribution, but then pull the works back into the proprietary domain. For example, there are a couple of publishers (Addison-Wesley and one other that I've forgotten) that used to have large numbers of their computer science books available for free in digital form, but they've recently cut off that option. This is exactly the kind of taking-back behavior that inspired the invention of copyleft licenses.


          • Undoubtedly Microsoft would argue that they are not monopolists, because there are so many other operating systems out there. The trouble is that libraries can't afford to subscribe to hundreds of journals. Also, there has been a lot of consolidation in the journal market recently. IIRC, Elsevier bought up a large number of previously independent journals and then proceeded to raise their prices exorbitantly.

            So who's the monopolist, us, or Elsevier? Or all of us together? I can't speak for the commercial publisher(s), but we're non-profit, and definitely not profitable (we eke out a couple of percent above cost in the journal business if we're lucky). The only analogy to Microsoft really is the same as for any other information good - there are increasing returns to scale, and we do have more subscribers than most physics journals would. But our marketing department (2 people) still has to work really hard to get subscriptions - one thing that makes it easier now are state-wide or country-wide "site licenses" that make everything free at point of use to every researcher in that country.

            Maybe there's another business model that would work for us, but we haven't found it yet.


            Your business is largely based on government-funded research. If you want to feed at the public trough, then you need to expect that the government will have something to say about it. To me, it seems absurd that papers describing publicly funded research should be the intellectual property of a particular organization.


            Which government? 70% of our papers come from outside the US. A good portion of our papers come from industry (at least they used to before the Bells and IBM cut back their research labs). We publish a few papers every year that we do not hold copyright to because they were produced as work directly for the US government, and are therefore not subject to copyright at all. The one reason we still even retain copyright rather than just asking for a license to the content (we grant the author back all the rights anyway) is due to certain European legal issues relating to derivative works, electronic format vs. paper etc. If we hadn't held the copyright (as some journals have not) we would have had a lot of trouble getting the rights to scan in our old journals and put them up online - and anybody else trying to do it would have had exactly the same problem (contacting the authors as legal copyright holders for hundreds of thousands of articles decades after the fact is no small feat).

            • So who's the monopolist, us, or Elsevier? Or all of us together?
              As I described in my original post, you were the monopolist when I was publishing papers in exeprimental nuclear physics. There was no other viable venue for long papers. A paper published in any other journal besides Phys Rev C would not have been available in most libraries.

              our marketing department (2 people) still has to work really hard to get subscriptions
              Not surprising, considering that the prices are very high, and they could get nearly all the same papers on arxiv.org for free.

              Which government? 70% of our papers come from outside the US.
              I don't see why any government should pay tax money to support scientific research, and then allow the copyright to be signed over to a private organization.

              A good portion of our papers come from industry (at least they used to before the Bells and IBM cut back their research labs).
              Of course if a private organization wants to sign their copyrights over to another private organization, no government should have any say in the matter.

              We publish a few papers every year that we do not hold copyright to because they were produced as work directly for the US government, and are therefore not subject to copyright at all.
              I published some papers in Phys Rev and PRL as a postdoc at Argonne National Lab, which is 100% funded by the federal government. IIRC, we never even had the option of not signing over our copyrights to you. I assume the fig leaf is the word "directly," since the federal government tends to administer research money indirectly, through universities. I think all authors should have the option of dedicating their work to the public domain, or of publishing it under a copyleft license.

              The one reason we still even retain copyright rather than just asking for a license to the content (we grant the author back all the rights anyway) is due to certain European legal issues relating to derivative works, electronic format vs. paper etc.
              You may be benevolent today, but again, there is no protection against a change in attitude tomorrow. If the only issue is European law, how about offering U.S. authors an option of licensing you the content while retaining the copyright?

              (contacting the authors as legal copyright holders for hundreds of thousands of articles decades after the fact is no small feat).
              This sounds like an excellent argument for applying copyleft licenses to scientific publications. If Linus Torvalds drops off the face of the earth tomorrow, people will still be able to use, copy, and modify Linux, without having to contact him.

    • is to have the authors pick up the cost. As you point out, $500 is nothing in comparison to the cost of the research, and publishing is clearly the payoff for modern academics.

      In fact, I was under the impression that most quality academic journals were already charging authors substantially more than $500.
      • I'm doing a PhD and chemistry (and have published a handful of papers) and hence have a little bit of experience with this. By charging the authors $500 you would kill the number of papers written. The high profile work would still get published, but the less exciting stuff would remain unpublished. Because one person's boring work is another person's saviour, this would be a very bad thing.

        Also, maybe it is different in other fields, but in chemistry, one doens't pay to get a article published (unless it is for colour printing etc).
    • Do you think you could do it for cheaper than $500/article if you were doing 40,000 articles per year? Are there any economies of scale to be used?

      If he were really big, think he could charge money to submittors? If it wouldn't be a very large sum compared to the cost of the research, then this could be considered a research expense. It's the cost of auditing. There'd have to be some system that made it so the auditors would have no reward for accepting papers...

      Ah, maybe it can't be done.
      • Well, right now we're reviewing 25,000 articles/year and I believe the actual numbers (for the peer review piece) are a bit more than $500. There are some economies to that sort of scale, but the fundamental human effort required to handle communications (the "court costs") for each paper is pretty well fixed.

        We used to charge authors publication charges (slightly different from submission charges) - in fact we still do for at least one journal. But there's a competition for authors out there too, and the commercial publishers almost killed one of our journals a few years ago by offering free publication to the same group of authors, even though their costs to libraries were far more.
  • publish or perish (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rnd() (118781) on Monday September 02, 2002 @05:32PM (#4185840) Homepage
    The article doesn't mention who would be the peer review board in the online journal system.

    I think Brown could learn a lot from the open discussion forum used by /.

    Anyone could "publish" an article. People would receive alerts when an article was published in a topic area of their interest. Readers would be able to rate the article on several points, and would be able to add commentary, notes, etc.

    Commentary, ratings, etc., could be sorted according to the evaluators' verified academic credentials (maybe I only care about what Harvard academics think of article X on particle physics, but someone else may be interested in what the general public, or for that matter 8th graders think of article X).

    Any new system would have to preserve the aspect of the status quo that generally dictates that unless the big shots in your field think you are onto something, you don't get recognition.
    • could learn a lot from the open discussion forum used by /. ....Commentary, ratings, etc., could be sorted according to the evaluators' verified academic credentials (maybe I only care about what Harvard academics think of article X on particle physics, but someone else may be interested in what the general public, or for that matter 8th graders think of article X).

      Then they would have to put up with the likes of goatse.

      "Professor Hawking, I think you will be happy to know that this diagram will prove that black holes are approachable to human observers."
    • For this to work, there would also have to be a way to 'review the reviewers'. Over time, perhaps a 'web of trust' would emerge where those who are competent in their field rise to the top, and their opinion carries more weight? I guess it could also go the other way, where competent people get dragged down into the quagmire.

      Slashdot's 'metamoderation' is a step in this direction, though it is pretty crude.

    • I have thought about this but the problem is that moderation and moderation requires a lot of users to work. How many readers willing to comment and moderate would a scientific journal get? A few dozens? I doubt that's enough.
      • Well, there are technologies like collaborative filtering that go a long way toward solving the problem much more efficiently than moderation + metamoderation.

        With collaborative filtering, an individual's preferences over a small set of data are used to predict likely preferences over a large set of data. So to take an example that is successfully in use here [umn.edu], one could rate 15-20 movies and have the system predict with a fair bit of accuracy that person's ratings of most any movie. Of course, you need a lot of people's preference data to do this, but I'm sure it wouldn't be a major hurdle to acceptance of Brown's idea, since he has so many researchers' signatures already.

        Plus, with a system such as CF, one could view the articles that the system determined he/she would find most useful, OR, one could view articles only based upon aggregate ratings, etc.

        • CF is not going to be helpful in refereeing scientific papers.

          CF can be good to predict the individual preference over an item but not the quality of the item.

          What it does is amplify the mistakes of the few who referee. Even if there are 2000 registered members and 2 referees per paper, the referee report is still based on those 2 referees.
          • CF is not going to be helpful in refereeing scientific papers

            I disagree. You say the following:

            CF can be good to predict the individual preference over an item but not the quality of the item.

            My point is that an individual's preference is equivalent to his perception of the quality of the item. Sure, if you had only two ratings for each item the system wouldn't work, but think of it this way:

            If an academic writes a paper (let's call it Paper X), we could assume (at least) that several of his colleagues are likely to read it. If the paper received a high rating from the initial reviewers, it would appear on the 'radar screen' of other like-minded individuals at other institutions. By 'like-minded' I mean people who would find the paper a worthy and interesting contribution to the literature in the field.

            Over time, more people would review the paper, perhaps some people in neighboring fields, some of whom would find it MORE relevant/interesting, and some of whom would find it LESS relevant an interesting. This would add intelligence to the system.

            Now, suppose that you logged on and rated a few papers, and that it turned out that your intellectual disposition was such that you tended to take interest in the ideas presented in Paper X. You would be shown Paper X on a "recommended reading list".

            The concept of a "recommended reading list" is precisely what I think makes CF extremely well suited to the scientific community. Right now, each field contains its own body of cannonical literature, and over time that body is expanded as articles are published in the field's prestigious journals by the field's prestigious academics. CF would allow for several occurrences that would serve to benefit mankind (and academia). I'm not sure if you would consider them weaknesses, but here they are:

            1. Looser constraints over whose ideas are exposed to mainstream scientists: An 8th grader could feasibly write a paper that would end up on the "recommended reading list" of an MIT professor, so long as the system had enough preference data to make the connection, but this would surely happen before long.

            2. Better cross-fertilization between fields: Preference data from individuals with inter-disciplinary interests would help the system recommend articles from fields outside an individual's primary expertise. I've known grad students who have never visited the University Library, relying instead upon a bookshelf in their faculty advisor's office. The intelligence developed by a CF recommender system may find some interesting bridges between fields. At the very least, it would put the information out there. Of course, if an individual consistently low-rated articles outside of his field, he would soon stop receiving recommendations for them.

            At any rate, I think it would work. It would take some time before the CF 'intelligence' was operating at its peak, but in the meantime the rating data could be used to show results based upon popularity.

  • Check out the Free Online Scholarship Newletter [earlham.edu] for very interesting discussions about "how the internet is transforming scholarly research and publications." Also James Morrison's interview [mivu.org] with this project's founder, the net-savvy philosopher Peter Suber.
  • "Get Your Research Peer-Reviewed, just 19.95!"
  • I really hope this idea does take off and soon becomes a standard in the science/research communities. Let us not forget, back whenever the Internet was still something about enhancing humanity instead of about expanding wallets, this (well, maybe not THIS exactly, but things like this in general) was the point of the Internet. The whole thing was invisioned as a way to better and expand human thoughts, ideas, and foster new/better technologies through improved and cheaper research and methods. However, now all the Internet community usually seems concerned about (With a few exceptions like /.) is getting mp3's and pr0n, hence the development of Internet2 [internet2.edu], which, hopefully will never be opened to the general public so that it doesn't lose its vision and become corrupted like the current Internet did.
  • Short of top secret technology, that which the public pays for should be available to the public for free. Period.

    It is immoral to ask the public to fund research with their tax dollars and then ask them to pay for it again if they want to see its results, via subscription costs.

    Journals such as Science seem to think that this is some crazy idea, that what the public pays for should be made freely available to the public. They also try to say its impossible, since there are costs involved in what journals provide, which is essentially peer review. Please. Don't tell me it costs $500 dollars for top researchers to read a paper and offer criticism. That can be done for free.

    What's needed is to set up an organization of reputable scientists willing to offer peer review to papers submitted; the organization would have some sort of signature verifying that their members reviewed a paper and deemed it publication-worthy. Then the organization would publish the paper on-line for free. Pretty simple.

    In the meantime, government action is needed to mandate that all papers eventually be made free to the public; perhaps six months after initial publication, perhaps 1 year.

    At any rate, nothing justifies asking the public to pay for something twice.

    • Don't tell me it costs $500 dollars for top researchers to read a paper and offer criticism.

      It's true anyway. The cost is in human time: a couple dozen hours per paper of a person looking at what needs to be done with it, making sure it's going to reviewers in the field who are available at this time, reading their responses to find what, if any, of substance needs to be done by the authors, reading author responses and making acceptance/rejection decisions. There are many ways of doing it more automatically, cheaper, easier; unfortunately none of them seem to be associated with a prestigious journal. Cause and effect?

      The analogy to a court system isn't precise, but the expenses involved in recording and monitoring the proceedings to ensure fairness are not dissimilar.


      In the meantime, government action is needed to mandate that all papers eventually be made free to the public; perhaps six months after initial publication, perhaps 1 year.


      Many journals already do this. We don't, but we offer our back file [aps.org], scanned at several million dollars cost, for a quite inexpensive personal or institutional subscription. Should the old stuff be paid for by current subscriptions, or should it pay for itself? All economic and market questions for the publishing business. Funny that scientists seem to think they have all the answers here.
      • Stop trying to justify your immoral practices.

        What it comes down to is that the public is paying for something twice. This is immoral.

        The public pays for the salaries of the professors who do peer review. The public pays for the research. Thus, the results should be available to the public free of any additional cost.
        • As I mentioned in another post, our authors are perfectly free to post their articles on the web, free, for download. They can even post the version that we copy-edited, exactly as published in the journal, as long as they attach the appropriate copyright statement. The only thing we're not doing, which you seem to be demanding, is to make the things available on our own servers, for free. Or to collect them and organize them and then post them to somebody else's servers. Well sorry, that's not our current business model. You may remember some internet companies that tried that sort of thing. They're not around any more.

          If you'll check out our journal web pages, you'll see there is a LOT of information already freely available. Almost all scientific journals make all the abstracts free, for example, and you can browse through hundreds of thousands of article listings to find the one you want. If you know exactly which one you want, you can pay for full text individually - few people seem to want to do that though.
          • My point is, it is IMMORAL to make a business out of publicly funded research.

            I give less than a flying fuck about how well journal businesses do. What I care about is the privitization of public information, which is what is happening.

            "A lot" of information being freely available isn't good enough. Any information that was produced with the aid of public money (taxpayer's money) must be made freely available by law.

            The internet companies you speak of weren't taking information produced by gov't money and publishing it. They were producing that information themselves, thus had the right to do whatever they want with it. The information you publish is produced because of taxpayer's dollars. The public has the right to be able to freely access that information.

            • "A lot" of information being freely available isn't good enough. Any information that was produced with the aid of public money (taxpayer's money) must be made freely available by law.

              The majority of what we publish is from outside the US. Did the US public pay for this research? No. Should it be available for free to the US public? Why?

              Forget immoral - it would be illegal for us to hold copyrights on anything that really was "public information" - however, according to US law that only covers what is written by direct government employees, which is only a tiny fraction of researchers in this country. We do, of course, publish a few such papers every year. That information is certainly "public information", freely available. Where's the immorality in us charging you for it if you can get it free somewhere else? You'll have to get it out of the government under FOIA of course :-)
        • The statement "the public pays for the salaries of the professors who do peer review" is only partially true. My NIH grants pay for a certain percentage of my salary. By NIH regulations, activities such as peer review are to be done OUTSIDE of the percentage of time NIH pays for. Like most university faculty, I serve as a reviewer for several journals, and am happy to do so. Each journal article I review (and it works out to about 1 or 2 a month) takes a full day of work, since I try to write my review as carefully and constructively. I receive no payment for this, but do it because (1) I want to see good stuff in my field published, (2) I want to help marginal work get "over the hump" to being great work, and (3) I have an expectation that my work will be reviewed in the same way.

          Information may be free (or may want to be free, I always screw up that quote), but vetting that information takes time and administrative overhead. If you're any one of the journal secretaries who's e-mailed/faxed/called me 3 times to get a review done you know how much administrative overhead it is! I wish Brown & Co. best of luck with the new endeavor, but also recognize that the "traditional" publishing houses and societies provide us with a lot of value.

    • I just spent around 20 hours reviewing a paper for an international engineering journal. I was not paid for this activity. My review was anonymous to the authors of the paper (accept with revisions, if you must know). And this paper was exactly in my field of expertise.

      At my current billable rate, that is around $1500-2000 worth of labor, minimum. I do it for free because the authors submitting to such journals are not paid.

      If it were a consulting report, you can be damn sure I would charge $75-100/hour to check someones engineering analysis.

      Where do you propose to get all of this free labor for reviewing? It's damned hard work.

    • It is immoral to ask the public to fund research with their tax dollars and then ask them to pay for it again if they want to see its results, via subscription costs.

      If you need the results, such sites as pubmed [nih.gov], infotrieve [infotrieve.com], and scirus [scirus.com] will provide you with all the results you'd ever care to read. Yes, these are abstracts and do not contain methods or detailed discussion, but the results are most often presented. Then there's pubmed central [nih.gov] that only deals in journals that are free (as in beer). Most journals allow access to abstracts and results. If you really need the article, there's always your friendly neighborhood library. Finally, it's common policy for authors to furnish reprints upon request (at no charge to the requestor).

      But you're obviously bent out of shape simply at the prospect of not providing the information (and rightfully so, I suppose).

      But government action? Not a chance. Current policy for public funding agencies is that developments arising out of sponsored research are the property of the discoverer. In most cases the "discoverer" is a university, who reviews the work for continued development (e.g. University-owned patents, licensing, etc). However, if the U decides not to act, that discovery becomes the property of the principal investigator who may do whatever they chose with it including: selling it as a product, patenting, licensing the technology, etc.

      In this way, many many many PI's have become stinking rich from tax-dollar supported (NIH) research. It happens all the time.

      So why would the gov't decide that it was their job to make it all freely available?
  • SPARC [arl.org] is a library-led effort to introduce competition into the peer-reviewed journal marketplace. Because of the outlandish rise in peer-reviewed journal prices, libraries and their acquisitions budgets are now not able to afford all of the content their users need. So libraries are now moving into the realm of publishing. Some call this a socialist approach, but I view it as capitalism at its best....
  • The revolution has started. The Journal of Biology is a prime example of a new free online journal with an excellent editorial board and the goal to rival Science and Nature. I personally hope that others will follow.

    http://jbiol.com/
    http://jbiol.com/info/contact /edboard.asp
  • http://www.soros.org/openaccess/

    It seems to be down now, but essentially the Soros foundation is studying this problem (and recognizing that the standard publishing model may be impeding scientific progress.)

    The Best part about this: they're funding stuff too! So if you have a great solution to this mess, please go and ask for money!

  • The question is why academics need journals, and whether that need could be transferred to an institution that didn't the same shortcomings. The shortcomings are major. Journals have gotten so expensive that even the best universities and labs have had to drop many of their subscriptions. The high costs also tend to lock out academics who are in poorer countries or who work at schools that have less money. The other major shortcoming is the delays. In my own field, physics, the conventional wisdom is that if it's in a print journal, it's too out of date to be interesting. In the humanities it's common to see delays of 2-4 years before something can get published, which is obviously a big problem for junior faculty members trying to build a tenure file within a limited time frame.

    Why do academics need journals?

    1. There needs to be an incentive to publish, because writing up your results is a huge amount of work, and unless you publish, your work is useless to the field at large. However, this is not an argument in favor of traditional journals: the highly successful online preprint servers are doing this job better than the journals.
    2. The community needs journals to help them decide which work is correct. Well, traditional peer reviewing does a very poor job of this. For instance, it recently came to light that the supposed discovery of several new elements was based on falsified data. There is absolutely no way that a peer reviewer could have caught this -- it seems that even the people involved in the collaboration were fooled by the person who committed the fraud.
    3. Some journals are more presitigious than others, and publishing in them is a way of showing that you're really a topflight researcher. Sorry, but this is also not an argument in favor of traditional-style journals. When there's a major decision, like tenure, based on one's research record, it needs to be based on an understanding of the research, not on statistics about how many papers the person published in which journals. The academic community already understands this, and is working to eliminate silliness like the LPU (least publishable unit).
  • I didn't read the article, but does anyone know what the heck they are talking about? Its like you have to be a rocket scientist to understand this stuff. Is it a new peer-to-peer review network of some sort where I can review wares?
  • One point not mentioned yet is that many/most journals have free online access to articles older than ~one year. Journals that don't do this such as the Journal of Molecular Biology can come under a boycott (in their case primarily for double-billing I believe: paper and online subscription = 2 subscriptions according to them). Currently there are many labs/universities who are refusing to publish, purchase, or participate in refereeing in that particular journal. It's hard to say what the effect has been even though it's relatively easy to find a competing journal to submit your work to, in contrast with the concluding statement timothy wrote. I just hope that Brown's idea wouldn't place all publication under one roof--that would be too easy for someone to control and censor (ie the Bush administration's suggestion that materials and methods sections not be published).
  • by Perdo (151843)
    pre-screen online before advancing to the "costly journals"
  • It seems to me that the most valuable thing that the peer reviewed journals provide is the rigorous screening and editorial process. It also seems to me that the least valuable thing that they provide is a printed hardcopy edition. This is particularly the case in that these journals are all published in low volume print runs, with the obviously resultant high per-copy cost. Sure the business model of giving it away on the web is done for, but there are plenty of other internet distribution mechanisms (subscription, pay per view, etc) that would work just fine.

    After all it would be so much more usefull if the text was searchable, the footnotes could be implemented as popups and the references could be hyperlinked to the actual articles! And the whole idea is to have the articles be usefull to researchers, right?

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Blair wrote:
    "While most of us would love to receive Phys Rev Lett A for $3 a month, I don't think it'll happen whether or not it's on the net. The demand just doesn't exceed the supply."

    You can view and print for free from "Physical Review Online Archive" from the American Physics Socity
    http://prola.aps.org/

    SPARC - The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition also works to encourage new solutions to scholarly publishing:
    http://www.arl.org/sparc/home/index.asp?page=0

    Go here to find a list of SPARC partners many of ehich have free and open access
    http://www.arl.org/sparc/core/index.asp?pa ge=c0
  • As I've been following the Public Library of Science (PLoS) initiative [publiclibr...cience.org] for quite some time, I find that the discussion tends to get side-tracked around peripheral issues. People seem generally supportive but skeptical of the initiative for a couple of reasons. First is the issue of cost - is it feasible to publish high-quality articles for just a few hundred dollars per article? Secondly it is generally assumed that the brand reputation of big-name journals would be impossible to crack.

    Take note that the real goal of this initiative is not to overthrow the time-tested process of peer review. Rather PLoS supporters are vested in changing the publishing process - away from the pay-per-view mentality and towards an open source type of license for scientific literature, where FULL TEXT articles can be viewed and re-distributed.

    Of course the marginal costs for publishing and peer review remain. The PLoS leaders propose shifting the cost burden from readers to authors - by charging a certain fee to publish an article. Their reasoning is that since government agencies such as the NIH already pay millions of dollars for journal subscriptions within research grants, those funds could be used to subsidize the author's fees instead.

    In case this sounds like "selling out" quality for profit, consider that it's in a journal's best interests to achieve prominence through a high citation rate. So quality would be ensured by recruiting high-profile scientists on editorial boards. Some journals are starting to adopt this paradigm, most notably the Journal of Biology [jbiol.com] and Genome Biology [genomebiology.com]

    How would journals reap profits then? By charging subscriber fees for insightful commentaries and research reviews - but still allowing free access to the fruits of publicly-funded scientific research.

    Can this new crop of open source journals rival the industry behemoths? Such revolutions have already rippled through the CS, physics, and math communtities, thanks to the strong support among authors. A $20 million investment, along with a firm commitment from biomedical researchers, sounds like the kick-start needed.

  • I would like to point out that not only traditional publishers are challenged, but even the peer review process is under consideration, as there is no great evidence on its usefulness (BMJ 1999;318:44-45 [bmj.com]).However, it's still difficult to find something to substitute it...

    Furthermore, Brown's attempts are not so new. PubMedCentral [pubmedcentral.gov] has been created for putting scientific papers (of traditional publishers) on the web for free, but it also includes a number of autonomous publications, which are free for readers; unfortunately, they are not free for authors, as administrative expenses (which exist for web-based journals too) are covered by a submission fee. Anyway, every research project includes publication costs, so this is a way for using them.

    Enzo
  • by jilles (20976) on Tuesday September 03, 2002 @02:38AM (#4187469) Homepage
    Just last week I received a box of photocopies of an article I published in one of Elsevier's journals in March. Apart from the fact that its nearly half a year late, what the hell should I do with 25 crappy photocopies of laser printer output of one of my own articles? We do have printers and copiers at our office.

    The whole process from beginning to end is so obsolete. I initiated contact with the journal editor more than a year ago by sending him a pdf of my article. He mailed back to thank me for my interest and asked me to send him three doublespaced paper copies to his office in the US (BTW reading doublespaced copies sucks IMHO). I did this, then I heard nothing for a long time. Finally I got a request to review a paper for the journal (this is quite common, most reviewers are also submitters). Finally after about half a year the paper was conditionally accepted (Yay!). This required an editing round and another submission of three paper copies. And several months later I was notified that my paper was accepted.

    I submitted a final version (by paper and electronically). That was the last I heard from them (a letter/email would have been nice) until I received the box full of photocopies. By monitoring the site I found out which in which issue of the journal my article was to be published.

    The editor of this journal is probably receiving a small fee for his efforts, which mostly consist of allocating reviewers to papers and putting stamps on envelopes. The actual technical editing is done by a bunch of latex monkeys provided by Elsevier. All communication is done by snail mail, communicating by email confuses both editors and elsevier staff (even though it would save loads of time).

    The worst thing of all is that their journal is far too expensive for individuals to subscribe to. Hence the only subscriptions go to university libraries who mostly store packs of unread dead trees in their archives. In my country, a significant portion of government research funds is used for this purpose (i.e. money intended for fundamental research is flowing directly to the pockets of publishers) which I think is outrageous. I'm pretty sure the situation is the same elsewhere.

    Now back to the role of the publisher. The publisher wastes everybodies time with a stupid editing process and by producing dead trees nobody reads anyway. It pays the editor a small fee and thats it. Apart from wasting everybodies time and funding the editor they do not actually contribute anything else. It is the editor who handles the peer review (100% volunteers as far as I know), it is the authors who deliver the content (100% volunteers). Taking the publisher out of the loop would save enormous amounts of money. Public funds could be used to fund editors and electronic hosting of journals for a fraction of the money currently flowing to publishers. This would not hurt the peer review process since it already depends on volunteers anyway.

    I have no other choice than to either comply with this obsolete process or pursue another career. The productivity of my university is measured in terms of number of articles published. One of the parties involved in annually creating a list of acceptable journals and a nr. of publications per dutch university is .... Elsevier. Natuarally their own journals are on this list.
  • Either everybody switches to a new model, or nobody does. I don't believe there can be any in between.

    If information online is to be recognised as having scholarly worth, it must be made permanently available. I'm sick of checking over references for my thesis, and finding that half the ejournals have moved or disappeared. This is not creating credibility for a new model of distrubution.

    Tenure review committees need to acknowledge the move to online publishing, and recognise it more fully before researchers will embrace it.

    If everybody switches to online, someone has to make sure that that information will always be available - in print AS WELL AS electronic. Not everyone has the Internet still. Print is still vital to a large body of researchers, and the availability of print may dissuade concerns that some researchers have about publishing in a new forum.

    Lastly, they need to pay careful attention to indexing, because databases are where most people find information, and where most tenure review committees get their list of approved publication journals from.

    It could work, but it really does require a massive committment on behalf of the academic community.
  • I had this idea a while back of publicly modifiable webpages, using some kind of addendum system (original webpage with comments, changes etc overlaid/added [in a different colour if need be]).

    Originally I thought this might be usefull for simple spelling checking...usefull for slashdot articles, for example :)

    Imagine my surprise when I surfed across to xerox, and found they have an actual system for doing this! (not the first time I've thought of something which had already been implemented :( ).
    To me, this is exactly the kind of system which can be used for public peer review of online publication; you publish your paper online, and let everyone at it. You might even filter by IP adress to make the comments of proffessor x at university y (who would have to make his comments from a university computer) have a higher priority...

    I don't know if this has been touched upon in the article, but , in true /. style I didn't have time to read it :)
  • I just published two papers at the "Clinical Medicine and Health Research" site which was pioneered by British Medical Journal and Stanford's HighWire project in 1999. URLs are

    http://clinmed.netprints.org/cgi/content/full/2002 080004 [netprints.org]
    http://clinmed.netprints.org/cgi/content/full/2002 080006 [netprints.org]

    However, it seems my two papers were the only ones submitted in August 2002. The site was started in 1999, at the height of the bubble, and initially proved popular, but papers have fallen off significantly since then.

    They use online 'peer review'. Anybody that disagrees with your point of view can post a comment, which, after manual reading by an editor at BMJ, is then posted online under your original paper for all to see.

    You may submit your paper to the print publications regardless of it already being posted at the Clinmed site.

    --> a bit like SlashDot I guess :-) ..trevor..
  • Most journals are the proceedings of professional scoieties, though a few are from publishers themselves. The socities are the "peers" who select and review the papers. The professional society then may publish itself or team up with a publisher than specializes in journals.

    Now if this scheme made it EASIER, CHEAPER, FASTER to get the papers out, then the socieites would be jumping at getting to do this. The new e-media appears to be evolutionary in its advantages rather than revolutionary.
  • by bigpat (158134)
    "Sounds like Brown's idea is exactly what the web is made for"

    It was, of course. In my physics undergrad days, not long ago, I was responsible for downloading selected "preprints" from http://xxx.lanl.gov, now properly http://arXiv.org Just the ones which the professors had picked out. Of course, back then it took a bit longer to download.

    Seems like all we would need is an electronic peer review system, much like slashdot. Where certain individuals given authority could rate the articles according to their merit, so that the best research would float to the top more quickly.

What the world *really* needs is a good Automatic Bicycle Sharpener.

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