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THE BLACK HOLE

Scientists have the power to change the publishing system

We need to assess who gets funded based on research merit, not journal label.

By DAVID KENT | January 26, 2015

Earlier this month I read an article by Julia Belluz that ripped into the scientific publishing system. The saddest, and truest, sentiment of the article can be summed up in the following quotation:

“Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics peer review it for free, and then journals charge users ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.”

This is certainly not the first attack against the publishing process nor the first to encourage open-access publishing. In the remainder of her article, Ms. Belluz focuses on the role that governments can play in getting more scientific research freely and instantly available. In sum, she suggests that government funding agencies (e.g. the United States National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) could refuse to give grants to those scientists who did not publish in open-access journals.

This is a laudable, and indeed it is the approach being taken bit by bit by funding agencies – the Wellcome Trust in the U.K. for example has a very robust open access policy that includes providing grant funding for the open-access charges. While this will certainly get more research out sooner and without charge, I believe it misses out on an important aspect of the power dynamic that plagues the scientific publishing process.

The fact is that journals with high impact factors wield enormous power because they hold the key to scientists’ careers – the field has become so obsessed with metrics that it is insufficient to be a good scientist with good ideas and the ability to perform good research. As things stand now, if you want research grants (and in most cases, this means if you want a job), then you need to publish a paper (or several!) with a big-name journal.

So what can scientists do? Well, it turns out scientists are involved in just about every aspect of the publishing power dynamic. First, one needs to understand what’s at stake. Scientists want big name papers for three main reasons:

  1. Grants
  2. Jobs
  3. Recognition

However, papers in big-name journals do not directly give you grants or jobs, nor are they the only way to be recognized as a good scientist. Other scientists make these decisions, but far too often their judgment is impacted by the glitz and glam of the big-name journals.

Jobs are often won by those doing research that has good institutional fit – they bring a novel technology, a new way of looking at things, or a broad network of excellent former colleagues – but jobs are often lost because the candidate is “not fundable.” The latter is more often than not decided based on where they have published and how a grants panel will view them. So it basically comes down to who can get grants. And who generally decides funding outcomes? Scientists.

I wonder how many grant panels have heard the phrase “the project looks good, but the candidate has only ever published in mid-range journals.” Indeed, I know several scientists who rank applications based on a candidate’s publication record irrespective of how good or bad the project is or how well-resourced the working environment is.

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

Of course I generalize and there are many crusaders out there (Michael Eisen, Randy Sheckman, Fiona Watt, etc.) pushing to change things and I mean them no offence. I just wish that more people could feel safe enough to follow their lead. In my own journey to start up a lab, I am under enormous pressure to publish in a big journal (i.e., my open-access PLoS Biology paper doesn’t make the grade and open source juggernaut e-Life has yet to achieve high-level status despite its many philosophical backers).

So, in sum, scientists in positions of power (peer reviewers, institute directors, funding panel chairs) are the real targets for change. Assess based on research merit, not journal label. Let’s make journals tools of communication, not power brokers of scientific careers.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Tim Vines / January 27, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I agree with quite a few of the sentiments expressed here, but your opening quote is just nonsense.

    Everyone seems to forget that open access journals also charge ‘ludicrous sums’, but this time to the authors. Why? Aren’t these non-profit OA journals devoted to cutting costs? Why hasn’t the cost been beaten down to zero?

    The simple answer is that peer review costs money, and the more rounds of review a journal needs to do to get an acceptable paper, the higher the per-paper cost. Sure, the reviewers and editors are largely free, but the managing editors and editorial office staff are not. They would barely be needed if authors always followed the author guidelines, reviewers quickly agreed and returned high quality reviews, and everyone was fair, honest and objective all the time. In this ideal world, the system would more or less run itself.

    Back in reality, running an efficient review process takes a huge amount of effort, and that effort costs money (something like $300 per round of review). So, academia, next time you’re raising your voice to complain about the high cost of science publishing, make sure you’re not currently being chased around for overdue reviews or badly formatted figures.

  2. Miriam Richards / January 28, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Granting agencies “could refuse to give grants to those scientists who did not publish in open-access journals.”

    Every time I read a statement like this I wonder if the person writing it would actually be on the hook for their publication costs in an Open Access journal. I do not make any effort to publish in open access journals or to pay open access fees in traditional journals, because the fees in my field range from $1000-$4000 per article. I work at a small university and my NSERC grant is $22,500 per year (the modal size for my field). $1000 per paper represents about 10% of a graduate student research stipend and almost 5% of my grant, so the publishing fees would be an additional cost that would require cutting back on research or student support. Sure, our university has a fund to help pay the fees. But at our small university, scientists publish about 500 papers per year. The fund to pay for open access is $10,000, whereas about $500,000 would be required for us to publish all those papers in open access journals.

    Much of the pro-open access sentiment seems to be motivated by anger at the greed of academic publishers Open Access. I sympathize completely, but would be horrified if the suggestion to require all our research to be published in Open Access journals were put into practice. As noted above, “Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics peer review it for free, and then journals charge users ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.” (Julia Belluz quote above). This is equally true if I use grant funds to pay Open Access fees – the only difference is in the accounting, which comes from my research grant rather than from library subscription fees. Of course, open access has the virtue that if I use my research grant to pay the publication fee, anyone can see the finished product, but then there will be less research done, which is not in the public interest either. Requiring publication in Open Access journals is NOT a viable solution for most researchers who do not have the funds to pay for it as an additional cost for their research. And as pointed out to me by a colleague in India, Open Access is even more problematic for scientists in poor countries, for whom the extra fees represent an insurmountable bar to publication.

  3. David Kent / January 28, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Hi Miriam and Tim,

    The quotation from Julia’s article was meant to provide context and is not my own opinion. I do think it underscores the general tone of discussion had about open access, peer review, etc. I guess the point I was trying to drive home was that we are not looking at the whole picture, the reason academics get riled up about journals is because they feel their own careers and/or grant funding are being dictated by journal power dynamics (the fact that they make a massive profit on it rubs salt in the wound) .

    I would (perhaps idealistically!) rather see journals as tools of communication rather than political flag waving… if good research is published anywhere, it should be findable so I don’t see why grant panels, peer reviewers, and especially hiring committees don’t invest time into assessing the research itself rather than the brand of journal in which it appears.

    I once saw a reference letter specifically say “his papers appear in good journals – but you actually have to read them to really appreciate the quality of the work.” I wish more assessors of science and scientists took this statement more seriously.

    Thanks as aways for good comments and feedback – I totally agree that OA financing is a major problem that needs tackling but I would also hope that a non-profit such as PLoS would stand to strip less public money than a publishing house like Nature.

    Dave

  4. Lonnie Aarssen / January 28, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    For years I have called for the need to break free from Impact Factor elitism. It hasn’t happened because researchers are addicted to it. I think progress could be made if university libraries became the principle publishers of university research (see: http://www.musingsone.com/2014/08/why-are-university-researchers-still.html). There is no justification for the high Article Processing Charges imposed by many open access journals. Six years ago I started a non-profit OA journal at Queen’s University (http://library.queensu.ca/ojs/index.php/IEE), and we can achieve cost recovery by charging only $200.

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