Science Publishing Is Systematically Broken and It’s Time To Fix It

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Science publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry that brings investors and owners a spectacular 30% profit annually.  How are they able to maintain such high profits and what does this mean for science?

Pretend you’re a scientist who’s made an important discovery. Your next step is to communicate your findings to other scientists and to the public by publishing your work in a scientific journal. To do this you begin by sending your work to an editor at a scientific journal of your choosing. Since there are over 10,000 to choose from and you believe your work is very important, you’ll likely try to submit to the most prestigious (and most expensive) journal in your field. Once submitted, an editor will decide if she considers your work important enough to be published in her journal- a practice with no empirical evidence to support its use. If anything, editors have been quite wrong in the past.

If the editor is convinced that your paper is important, it’s then sent to two to four scientists in your field for review, a process aptly referred to as peer review. While peer review as it currently stands is considered by most to be an absolutely necessary part of science publishing, research on the effectiveness of pre-publication peer review has called this notion into question.  For example, agreement between reviewers is more or less random, does not often detect errors or plagiarism, and can actually block innovative ideas from publication. The peer review process is also quite slow, often taking months to years to complete.

Once your work is deemed acceptable by your peers (2-4 peers that is!) it’s published and you’re sent a bill.  The cost:  a few thousand dollars!  Your published paper is now available to be read by those willing to pay to see it. Sadly, the public, who funds most of the scientific research through their tax dollars, must pay publishers ten to ninety dollars per paper to access it.  To emphasize this point, the public must not only pay for the initial research they must also pay to read it!  Can you imagine if we had to pay tolls on the roads our tax dollars went towards building?  Scientists, who are the most common readers of scientific literature, can generally read the work of other scientists at no cost to them but can often only do so because the universities or institutions they work at have paid thousands of dollars to publishers for access.

Science publishers must be providing something of value in order for scientists to pay thousands of dollars to have their work published, right?  They do, and that thing is prestige, but that’s about it.  (Sure, sometimes there are edits made by the publisher’s editors but they’re  often unnecessary since reviewers frequently point out grammatical mistakes and errors during their review).   The reviewers, who do most of the work besides the authors, are neither employed nor paid by publishers to review papers.  Scientists may agree to review papers for free considering it their scientific duty or to build rapport with the editor so that when they submit a paper of their own the editor may be more inclined to allow it through to be reviewed.  Does this have you scratching your head yet?

All in all publishers are collecting fees from the scientists submitting their work, charging the public to read the work, and relying on the free labor of scientists to review the work. If the whole system seems perverse, it’s because it is!

Why does such a broken system persist?  Both science publishers and we as scientists are to blame.  Publishers are resistant to change as they stand to lose many tens of billions of dollars by doing so.  On the other hand, scientists risk damaging their careers or not having much of one if they don’t publish in the top journals, a truth summed up in the admonitory adage publish or perish.

There have been semi-successful attempts to change how scientific research is published with the rise of open-access publications.  Open-access publications are, as the name suggests, open for anyone to access/read for free. However, while open-access publishing has made research reports more accessible, it has only partially addressed the problems with science publishing.  For one, it’s done nothing to lower the cost of publishing.  In fact, open access articles typically cost more to publish than subscription based articles because of “article processing fees”- a savvy ploy that allows publishers to simply maintain their bottom line while appealing to those concerned with open-access.  Additionally, publishing is still remarkably slow despite the use of Internet communication.

What needs to be done to fix the science publishing system and how do we intend to do it at The Winnower?

First, all science publications should be open-access and the cost of publishing should be reasonable.  Second, all steps in the publication process should be transparent and open. Accordingly, The Winnower will employ post-publication peer review (i.e. peer review by everyone and anyone after publication).  Lastly, to incentivize the efforts of scientists reviewing papers, the best reviewers, as judged by the scientific community, should be able to publish their work for free.

Based on these principles, The Winnower will be an open-access online science publisher that will charge a flat rate of $100 per publication utilizing transparent post-publication peer review.  This means that once one’s work is ready for publication it can be uploaded to The Winnower’s website for immediate publication where it’s then available to be read and reviewed by all.  Some might argue that post-publication peer review opens the doors to streams of poor quality work.  However, current science publishing platforms are already failing to filter out poor work as it stands and don’t afford an easy (if any) means of flagging poor work as flawed.  In fact, work can be submitted multiple times, receive multiple negative reviews and in the end be published somewhere with the negative reviews remaining hidden from other scientists, the public, and the media.

It’s our hope that The Winnower will revolutionize how the scientific community communicates their findings, reviews others work, and reviews each others reviews.  Science publishing in its current form is systematically “broken”.

So, let’s fix it!