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Time for a Change: How Scientific Publishing is Changing For The Better
Author: Jocelynn Pearl
Jocelynn Pearl is a biotech scientist, podcaster and freelance writer (substack: Motif) with a PhD in molecular & cellular biology from the University of Washington. She hosts the Lady Scientist Podcast and is a co-founder of both the LabDAO project and the Web3 Women in Science. She is passionate about sharing stories at the intersection of web3, science, art and medicine.
Publishing research in the form of scientific articles is an essential part of a career in academic science, so much so that we frequently repeat the saying “publish or perish.” If that wasn’t dark enough, traditional publishing in big scientific journals is rife with ethical concerns, including the fact that most scientists are required to pay the journal to publish their papers (essentially, their scientific content) on the order of thousands of dollars, and at many journals (unless the author pays more for open access) their scientific knowledge will live behind a paywall, costing on average $30-$50 for a pdf of the content.
And the peer review system that many of us hold dear? Well that is primarily run on a volunteer basis, and some suggest that it’s in trouble. This makes for a pretty lucrative business industry for the publishers, with profit margins that rival Google and Apple. And we, the scientists, agree to be a part of this system day after day, paper after paper, by continuing to submit our work to Big Journals.
The good news is that people have been fighting traditional publishing for years, making progress towards a future where our research tax dollars don’t go to large corporations like Elsevier, fighting for open access, and even revamping our relationship with the scientific article and how the essential information generated by scientists gets disseminated with the world.
In recent years, there’s a new wave of activist scientists getting creative in the battle against traditional publishing.
I’ll cover some of the changes (both proposed or underway) to traditional scientific publishing here. I’ll primarily focus on new projects and the people behind them, but that isn’t to dismiss the massive amount of work that’s gone on in this space leading up to 2022. Among those stories are the activist efforts of Aaron Swartz, described in the heartbreaking documentary The Internet’s Own Boy (free to watch on YouTube; I encourage you to do so) and this Palladium article by Jason Parry. There was also the founding of “shadow library” Sci-Hub by Alexandra Elbakyan; what some say is one of the greatest contributions to science of late. And importantly, there was the founding of open access journals like PLoS, PeerJ, and eLife, led by pioneers like Michael Eisen and Peter Binfield. Lastly, there are countless scientists who have rebelled against the system over the years, pushing and often paying for their research to be open access, or experimenting with different ways to share their research with the world.
Recently, I was asked to review a paper. The process is volunteer based - meaning my time to review the paper would not be compensated. The ask? Typically, three reviewers in a similar field will read through the paper and results and submit their comments to the editor of the journal. They will address the novelty of the research and whether it is a good fit for the journal to publish. At eLife, the reviews are published publicly, and a public statement is requested from the reviewers in addition to the private review shared with the authors and editor. As you can imagine for a typical scientific article, it takes some time. I spent about 1-2 hours a night for a week working on the review. Generally, academic scientists see this as part of their job - contributing to the ecosystem and the published literature in their field through reviews. But time is still a limited resource.
What are some ways to improve peer review? For starters, we could try paying reviewers for their time. Incentivizing the process of peer review is something that has been proposed within the web3 x science communities, and is in the early days of being tested by some platforms. ResearchHub is one platform where scientists are encouraged to upload their work and engage in discussion, incentivized via a token called ResearchCoin. Ants-Review is another proposed blockchain protocol for incentivizing open and anonymous peer review. The VitaDAO community also recently launched The Longevity Decentralized Review, which pays for researchers to review preprints from servers such as biorxiv and medrxiv. Preprints are full length articles which researchers upload prior to official, traditional publication with a journal, which means they have not been sent out for peer review.
With the rise of the preprint, our interaction with papers has shifted. In my own work, about a third of the literature I’m consuming is in the form of a preprint. And much of the modern scientific discourse is getting digested via Twitter or through alternative forms of media such as podcasts. To that end, should we be performing peer review of podcasts? One experiment into this was the Better Skeptics project, in which Alexandros Marinos (an entrepreneur) and Eva Tallaksen (a journalist) put up $10,000 in potential bounties for anyone to assess medical claims made in three podcasts. The claims were then scored by three reviewers. I was one of them. The process was…interesting, and led to more Twitter trolls attacking me than I expected.
Another experiment in bounty-based ‘idea reviews’ is ideamarket.io. From their website, “As bitcoin is money without banks, Ideamarket is credibility without institutions.” The platform incentivizes people to make short posts about ideas and for others to score these ideas from 1-100 to express agreement. The hope is that a public database of opinion will emerge. Interesting idea!
The Rise of the MicroPub
Which leads us to another topic that has come into question: is the traditional scientific article format outdated? How should scientific data and results be shared with the community?
In February, I asked:
And in a recent Tweet from the often-inflammatory Lior Pachtor, he claimed that hardly anyone reads scientific papers anymore:
I still read a decent amount of literature, but I was curious, so I polled my scientific Twitter followers to ask if they read papers or digest particular parts of the paper. Out of 173 votes, about 50% said they look at the figures alone or another section.
One answer to this reality is we could shift to sharing results or figures in a shorter, more frequent way. The idea of ‘micropubs’ is being explored across a couple of platforms, among them is micropublications.org and Flashpub.io, led by Nate Jacobs. Micropubs are essentially portions of full length scientific articles. An example here.
Another criticism of the full-length article is that the real translation of methods from lab to lab requires more than just reading the methods section of a paper. An answer to that problem might be platforms like Sci-Find, led by Guy Rohkin and Stefani Robnett, which provides a place to share and discuss scientific methods.
Considering the time and cost that go into traditional, full-length scientific articles, one can imagine that publishing micropubs might allow for better flow of useful information. That’s the hope at least! But so long as the traditional article is tied closely to academic career advancement and grants, it will be up to the rebels and those who are obsessed with information dissemination that adopt these new methods.
What is an even greater problem than the ease and frequency with which new science is shared? Let’s talk about the vast majority of the literature that lives behind a paywall.
For anyone not familiar with this problem, most universities shell out enormous amounts of money to provide access to people within their institutes to the majority of scientific literature. But for those of us outside an institutional license, the pdf will cost us.
Sci-Hub was an answer to so many researcher prayers; like a Napster for scientific literature, this piracy site started by science’s “pirate queen” contains over 88 million academic papers that many would otherwise not have access to. As Parry so eloquently points out in this article about Sci-Hub,
“the fact that such a site exists is something of a tragedy. Sci-Hub currently fills a niche that should never have existed. Like the black-market medicine purchased by people who cannot afford prescription drugs, its very being indicts the official system that created the conditions of its emergence.”
For years, the general public consensus that scientific information should be open access was met with official regulation in support of Big Journals, which waged lawfare against platforms like Sci-Hub and ResearchGate. But the open access community received a huge dose of official support from the White House when it made the following announcement earlier this year:
Today, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) updated U.S. policy guidance to make the results of taxpayer-supported research immediately available to the American public at no cost. In a memorandum to federal departments and agencies, Dr. Alondra Nelson, the head of OSTP, delivered guidance for agencies to update their public access policies as soon as possible to make publications and research funded by taxpayers publicly accessible, without an embargo or cost. All agencies will fully implement updated policies, including ending the optional 12-month embargo, no later than December 31, 2025.
What a huge win! What an incredible statement! Isn’t it crazy that our government had to come out and mandate that taxpayer-supported researcher be made available for everyone? Truly wild, but here we are.
Rewinding back to November of 2021, on the tail of the fervor around ConstitutionDAO, David McDougall tweeted:
And just like that, OpenAccessDAO was born. It would die just five or six weeks later, but the appetite for activism in this space was incredible. On the order of ~2000 community members swarmed into the newly launched Discord server and began debating how best we could go about opening up access to published science. Was purchasing a journal and ‘freeing the science’ the best way to go? The community was in hot debate, so the launch team (myself included), requested people to submit proposals for the best way to fix access. A slew of ideas poured in, many of them with incredible merit. Among the 29 ideas, three categories emerged, summarized as journal acquisition, implementation of a tokenomics strategy, and FOIA requesting mass amounts of literature.
What happened next? In the spirit of decentralization and democratization, the community voted on the proposals. A tokenomics proposal won by a healthy majority. But the reality was that the community and leadership had already fractured into groups that wanted the DAO to do different things. After the vote, no community members stepped up to lead the charge and the server went silent.
Luckily, the White House announcement spells future change for much of what OpenAccessDAO wanted to achieve; to break open the massive amount of prior research hiding behind paywalls. The mandate won’t go into effect until the end of 2025, and there are questions around how successful the implementation will be. Until then, it is up to researchers to choose where to submit their articles and whether they are open access. It can be a hard choice in a system incentivized by prestige, fed by a record of papers in ‘top-tier’ journals like Nature, Science and Cell.
But changemakers like Seemay Chou, who leads Arcadia Science along with Prachee Avasthi, are making the decision easy for their researchers by requiring them to publish their research in a new format on the institute’s website, where they provide links to the project description, data, and even Twitter commentary. The backend of their platform is built by PubPub. They’re cutting out the middleman and putting out smart manuscripts. I love to see it.
I’ve covered a multitude of new platforms springing up with the hope of disrupting and improving how we disseminate scientific knowledge. If you’re a scientist, I encourage you to jump into some of these platforms and start testing them out. Engage. Share a micropub or a figure. Give an incentivized peer review. And if I missed any exciting projects in this space, leave a comment and I’ll revise the article to include it.
The cycle of publish or perish has bound researchers up to Big Journals, submitting our work in a financially extractive way that robs academics of money that could otherwise go towards their next experiment. It’s time to put our muscle behind open access publishing and find new ways to break free of Big Journals. One day we can look back and laugh at the old way of doing things.
At least, that’s my hope.