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Really interesting stuff is happening this week in the world of scientific publication. Scientists and editors are trying out new publication models that will change science. This is important because science publication is science. Scientists rely on citing printed works to give credibility to their arguments, their data, and basic knowledge. Everything that scientists put in a new article has to be attributed to an already-printed article, be a new result, or be generally accepted by the community. This last provision doesn’t stop most papers I see from citing Charles Darwin within the first paragraph. Even when we all know who he was and what he said, citing a printed work still lends the most weight to any point a scientist makes.

Why is this true? Because there’s an ironically Darwinian process behind publication called peer review. Once an article has been accepted for publication by a journal, it has been reviewed thoroughly and revised significantly. If it’s published, then several knowledgeable people agreed that it was important and well-done. Here’s a basic run-down of the process: I do some research and I want to tell people about it; I submit that paper to a scientific journal’s editor; the editor gives it to an associate editor who chooses (usually) three reviewers who prepare detailed comments on everything from spelling to the validity and the overall scientific significance of the results; the editor then looks over those comments and decides whether the paper is right for the journal, is well-done, etc. Then he can make one of several decisions (there are many variations, but these are the most common): reject the paper, give the authors a chance to revise and then start the process again, accept it given that the authors do what the reviewers suggest, or accept it outright. The last option is unheard of — except that it happened to me once; that was crazy — but it’s important for understanding new developments in publishing.

The last part of the process is that if the author gets the chance to publish the article, he has to pay to publish it. This is the weird part of scientific publishing that I think many people are unaware of, or might have thought they misheard. Yes, scientists pay to have their work published.

Ideally the process of peer review should live up to the ideals that I outlined above, but there are a lot of people who think it is outdated, unnecessary or evil. There are other problems in the process, such as authors paying for work, and then there is the cost of disseminating the research, i.e. actually getting it to its readers. As of this week, scientists are now toying with every part of this process along with the help of the internet.

The biggest development over the past ten years has been Open Access publishing, which takes care of the last part of the process, the dissemination of research. Open Access articles are reviewed just like other articles, but they are offered free of charge over the internet to anyone who wants to read them. This is unlike most journals that are only available to people with a subscription, for example students at a university where the library subscribes. The biggest argument in favor of Open Access has been that citizens are being made to pay for research twice: federal grants (that originate from tax dollars) pay to do the research and publish it, and then taxpayers have to pay to read the work once it’s published. There are now thousands of Open Access journals and you can read them as easily as you are reading this blog. This is a good thing.

Moving back through the process, a new sort of non-journal is experimenting with publication costs. PeerJ is not really a journal, but promises peer-reviewed publication on the internet for a one-time fee for the authors: you pay only $99 for one publication a year, instead of up to $1000 for one publication at a time. PeerJ also promises to publish articles on the basis of scientific merit rather than impact. Most journals, including my favorites, will only accept paper if the editor and the reviewers can agree that it’s significant to the scientific community. PLoS ONE changed that by accepting papers only based on whether the science was well-done, and PeerJ plans to do the same thing. As you can imagine PLoS ONE publishes a lot of papers: there are over 2,000 a month these days, which makes it really hard to find interesting papers to read. If I publish a paper in PLoS ONE, I will definitely blog about it.

Dealing with the problems of peer review is the goal of Peerage of Science, which is a network of scientists that distribute their work and get it reviewed before submission to a journal. I think the idea here is that you can then submit your paper saying that it’s already been reviewed. I like the idea of forming a community of peers where we can review each others’ work without things becoming competitive. This is one of the biggest complaints about peer review. I’ve never experienced competition during the review process, but I know people who have thought that was going on. Reviews are typically anonymous, but Peerage of Science encourages the breaking of anonymity.

A new microbiology journal called mBio plans on dealing with the editor’s decision-making process. Instead of all the variants, and the reviewers getting whatever they want (“we kindly thank the reviewers for making us do additional experiments that had nothing to do with our hypothesis, but that seem to fit the research program of another biologist we know very well”), mBio promises to either reject a paper or accept it with minor revisions. A minor revision is something like the decision to not include a figure, or to add one or two additional citations. This means that the editor can make a faster decision, but it also means that reviewers are given less (more?) power. Sounds like if a paper needs significant revisions, mBio will just reject it, saving the authors some time.

I think what all these experiments are going for is making scientific publication a lot more like a wiki: a place where people can easily access each others’ work and data, easily share their work and data, and review is still there. Review, with all its problems, is still incredibly important. Lots of people have suggested alternatives, and there are some good ones, but I still appreciate the review process, even if I don’t like it all the time while I’m in the middle of it. I recently had a paper rejected because the reviewers just didn’t get what I was saying, but that is my problem, not theirs, so they did their jobs. Moving scientific publication in the direction of openness, through any of these ideas, is a huge step forward.

We should be a long way from the days when scientists would deliberately obfuscate their results from their peers — Galileo disseminated his results to other astronomers written in a cipher. The biggest thing holding us back is the idea that scientists own their research: I don’t believe I own my ideas, but there are people who want to keep their ideas to themselves as long as possible (i.e. until after it’s been through peer review). And of course there are people who profit from keeping scientific results hard to get at. However, as the free software movement shows, today’s technology (incidentally, built out of free software) makes sharing incredibly easy for those of us who want to share. The people who created arXiv understood this even when it wasn’t so easy.

Thanks for reading.