Scientific progress is anchored in the way science is communicated to other scientists. Research papers are published through an antiquated system: scientific journals. This system, enforced by the scientific journals’ lobby, enormously slows down the progress of our society. This article analyzes the limitations of the current scientific publishing system, focusing on journals’ interests, their consequences on science and possible solutions to overcome the problem.
There are a few core elements in the scientific chain of production in the public sector: research groups, led by Principal Investigators (often Professors), Universities and academic institutions, scientific journals, and funding agencies. This article aims to analyze the detailed role of each “element” of this scientific chain of production, in order to understand how and why the current scientific system is failing to bring substantial scientific progress to our society.
Let’s start step by step.
Who is performing the research?
Research groups consist of scientists who work within a distinct hierarchy (Fig. 1). At the lower end of this hierarchy lies the Bachelor and Master students who perform unpaid research, usually supervised by a more experienced scientist. They usually work on projects chosen by their respective research groups for 6 to 12 months until they write their thesis and ultimately graduate. Some students choose to stay in academia and apply for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) research position. PhD students are generally remunerated students that perform a substantial amount of work, including teaching, attending congresses and meetings, reporting the progress of their research, etc. As they are generally young, motivated and cheap, they are often preferred to more experienced scientists such as post-docs.
Depending on the institution and country, a PhD in natural sciences can last anywhere between 3 and 7 years, after which students write a thesis or dissertation and defend their work in front of a commission of Professors. At this stage, a PhD may decide to further proceed in their academic career by applying for a post-doc position in another research group. Post-docs receive salaries that are relatively high when compared to those of PhD students. Post-doc projects can last anytime from 1 year upwards, generally until a discovery is made public. At the end of a successful post-doc project, scientists may apply for public grants to conduct their own research, and eventually, after a successful period of research, apply for faculty positions announced by academic institutions to become professors. Principal Investigators (PIs), often University Professors, are at the top of this hierarchy. They are established scientists involved in teaching activities within a university, as well as research activities, which generally consists of supervising the work of post-docs and PhD students.
How is science communicated?
Research groups investigate specific questions and try to find evidence for their hypotheses. The work of a scientist involves practical and theoretical work, as it requires experimental planning, performing experiments, and the interpretation of data. Obtained data are translated into charts and graphical illustrations that can be understood and interpreted by other scientists. These data and figures are collected in a manuscript. The manuscript, commonly referred to as the “paper”, provides a rationale to the questions asked, explains the results and their importance, describes the methodologies, and draws evidence-based conclusions.
This manuscript eventually ends up being published in a scientific journal to share the results with other research groups investigating similar questions. Scientific journals are private companies whose official mission is to allow the scientific world to communicate, read and understand the research performed by groups all over the world. Further, their mission is also to improve the general quality of research, since each article undergoes a process of peer-review, which consists of one or more rounds of revisions carried out – anonymously – by experts in the field (see an example: Nature’s mission).
Scientific journals as a business
As explained in this article, scientific journals emerged as the only successful way to communicate science in the pre-internet era. Printed magazines were basically the only way for scientists to tell other scientists about their research. Scientific journals profited by acting as intermediaries, as they were the only ones able to provide this service. Their contribution to science has therefore been important, and substantial. However, in the internet era, journals have become an antiquated way to communicate science. Nonetheless, journals continue to be the main intermediaries between scientists, as they keep publishing worldwide research in their online and/or printed magazines. Academic institutions pay huge yearly subscriptions to be able to access online material from each individual journal (and there are many!). The University of Auckland, for example, has spent around US $14.9 million in 2016, just for the 4 main publishers. Individual research groups or academic institutions also pay a fee in order to publish in journals. Basically, to get their research published, scientists pay between US $1’000 and US $6’000 depending on the journal.
Scientists pay fees to journals for publishing their work, financed with their own funds, and then they pay journals a second time to be able to read their own research and those of others (Fig.2).
In a world where communication is basically for free, given the infinite possibilities that the web offers, this is not only anachronistic, but also ridiculously foolish. Scientists are the forefront of technological progress, and are nonetheless chained to a system that is advantageous to few – the publishers – and disadvantageous to many – the scientific community.
Let’s now analyze the reasons why this system hasn’t ceased to exist. You will be surprised to know that it deals with the way PIs are hired, but we will get to that later. Firstly, we need to understand the way journals make their profit and deal with scientists. Given that journals are currently the only way scientists make their work public, this monopoly allows them to further impose a certain narrative and a certain style of communicating science. Journals progressively want findings that can be easily sold, supported by big stories, because they are more appealing to other scientists and the general public. For journals, scientific data should not only be conclusive per se, but should all together offer a complete picture of a certain mechanism. There is, in other words, no space for pure and simple observations, which are those experiments that constitute the building blocks for bigger discoveries. Sadly enough, the journals’ narrative inevitably excludes research papers that show negative results: when a research project fails to answer a question, the work often goes unpublished leaving the scientific community inevitably in the dark on failed experiments. Often scientists from other academic institutions have similar ideas, and won’t find these results published, suggesting that the idea hasn’t been tested. They will therefore unknowingly repeat those failed experiments whilst unnecessarily investing money and wasting valuable time and resources. Strikingly, if Alexander Fleming, with his discovery of Penicillin (1) – the first isolated antibiotic – were to publish his paper today, he would likely see his paper rejected by the major journals, although the impact of his discovery has been inestimable. This would happen because Fleming’s discovery basically comprises a single experimental observation: the antibacterial properties of penicillin. Since penicillin’s therapeutic effect wasn’t tested by Fleming, journals wouldn’t be likely to publish the discovery, as it wouldn’t have been perceived as breaking news.
As we already mentioned, there is a vast number of scientific journals out there. In 1665, the world was introduced to the first two editorial magazines to publish research: the French “Journal des scavans” and the British “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (2). Among others, the prestigious magazines Nature and Science were founded in 1869 and 1880 respectively. Currently, the estimated number of existing scientific journals is somewhere between 25000 and 40000, and this number keeps on growing. This abundance of publications clearly indicates how profitable this business really is. Additionally, it must be made clear that journals are the cause of a set of problems too. The increasing number of publishers makes it harder for academic institutions to keep track of all the research that gets published. Secondly, each individual journal shares the research they publish on their private website (or printed magazine), which are hardly accessible to scientists who end up resorting to information only in top-notch journals, for convenience and because of their elite status.
Similar to many aspects of our society, there is inequality between the rich and the poor in science. Although this primarily depends on public and private funding, the publishing system helps to maintain the status quo. Rich academic institutions can afford the journals’ publication and subscription fees, thereby allowing them to ‘keep up’ with the latest scientific trends. However, many other institutions often find themselves struggling to afford the pricy subscriptions, depriving their scientists and students from reaching the published work. This business machinery, as it wants to maximize the revenues, sucks money from those who have it. The others are out of business. The result? Science becomes only for the elites.
How are scientists hired?
Research group members are normally hired by PIs. But how are PIs themselves hired? Scientists who performed successful research during their PhD and post-doc(s) can for instance apply for open positions to become University Professors, the highest and most desired position for a scientist working in the public sector. A body of established professors, who represent the academic institution awarding the position, selects the candidate professors. To facilitate the process, only the very best candidates are usually invited to give a presentation at the host institution. The best candidates are normally selected for their academic achievements based on their list of publications in scientific journals. Ideally, the academic success of a scientist is measured as a score that is based on the quality of their research and the number of scientific publications. The quality of a research paper is generally measured with a score called “impact factor”. The impact factor measures the frequency with which an average article in a journal has been cited in one year.
In theory, a paper that receives a high number of citations is generally a good paper. However, citations are often given because of the high impact factor of the journal itself, due to the higher ability of top-notch journals to spread their articles to the scientific community. A sort of vicious circle. The higher the impact factor, the higher the chance a researcher will become a PI. Basically, if a natural scientist publishes in Nature or Science, he or she will have a good chance to reach their objective: becoming a Professor. There is therefore a rat race to publish in journals that have a high impact factor score. In the field of biological sciences, for instance, the most renowned journals are Nature (2017 impact factor: 41.577), Science (2016 impact factor: 37.205) and Cell (2017 impact factor: 31.398).
Quite a lot of citations!
Along the corridors of research institutions, it is common to pass judgment on scientists based on where they published their papers.
<<She has a Science paper, she must be good!>>, or <<She’s never published high [in a journal with a high impact factor]. Pity, she has little chance in the field…>>.
For academic institutions, hiring new PIs based on their list of publication is currently the fastest, cheapest and most quantitative way to get the job done.
Is there something wrong with this approach? Yes.
1) Negative competition: competition is often a positive push to do better, but sometimes can be negative, when for instance it induces and rewards egoistic and antagonistic behaviors. Scientific competition is created by the fact that only a very small number of research papers gets published in top-notch journals, and the findings have to include a groundbreaking discovery or introduce novel and very progressive approaches. For instance, the journal Science accepts less than 7% of the submitted papers.
As there is a limited number of available PI positions, publishing in top-notch journals becomes a priority for ambitious scientists. Scientific competition is negative on two levels: within a research team and between groups. Within a research team, lab members struggle to decide the authorship of a research paper: who is the discoverer? Who is the most important author? This often causes internal debates and fights within a research team, often causing individualism to became the predominant behavior in the workplace. Indeed, to avoid this sort of internal conflict, scientists often avoid collaboration with their own colleagues, fearing they could otherwise interfere when a manuscript is submitted for publication. In fact, in the public sector, each individual scientist carries out an individual project1. Teams work on several, although often interconnected, individual projects, rather than working on a single project as a team. Of course, this usually reduces the general productivity and efficiency of a research team.
1This is not the case for the private sector. For instance, all scientists that work for pharmaceutical industries have the same objective. Thus, their work is coordinated, efficient and goal oriented.
The second aspect is the competition between research groups: since science should seek out progress for our collective society, it should be a very, if not the most, collaborative work structure we know. But because of this competition, scientists often hide or lie about their preliminary data at scientific conferences, fearing some other scientists would pick up their ideas and “scoop” them. “Being scooped” is indeed one of the major fears for a scientist: working for years on a project, achieving important results, writing the manuscript for publication, only to find that another research group has just published work that is almost identical to yours. What a frustration!
What are the consequences of this fear? Scientists stop being collaborative individuals. They do not share ideas, data, or reagents. They do not seek out the opinion of others, for fear of their ideas being stolen. Because of this wall they build to protect their career/work, they are often unaware of the possibility that another research group may be working on a very similar project, and indeed often fear this possibility. Instead of collaborating, discovering something faster and demonstrating a theory more convincingly, scientists waste their time and money working on the same thing independently, in order to achieve the publication glory. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it is increasingly becoming a rather common scenario.
Another consequence of the negative competition we have discussed so far, is that researchers, in particular those at earlier stages of their career such as PhD students, are experiencing troubles with their psychological wellbeing. Doing a PhD causes stress, anxiety and depression (4).
2) The second negative aspect of the approach used to hire scientist is a consequence of the first: negative competition encourages dishonest behavior.
In order to make a career in academia, a scientist knows they have to publish in high-impact journals and will do whatever they can to achieve this, even cheating. These scientists often forget the real reason for pursuing a career in science (discussed here).
How can a scientist cheat? We mentioned earlier on that researchers conduct rather individualistic research. They can simply claim that they have discovered something they haven’t. Incredible cases of data falsification are on the rise, such as the tragic suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, who was under pressure for the retraction of two controversial papers published in Nature due to claims they contained manipulated data. Retracting a paper means that a previously published manuscript becomes officially unavailable for the general scientific and non-scientific public. Basically, the discovery is made void. The number of articles retracted by journals has increased 10-fold in the last decade, according to Science. There were fewer than 100 retractions per year before 2000. In 2014, nearly 1000 papers were retracted. This however still remains a rare event, with about 4 retractions for every 10’000 papers published but should nonetheless be a cause of concern since these data manipulations are easily identifiable.
When false claims are made, other research groups often work on reproducing the previously published data for the following reasons: competition, disbelief, interest and curiosity. When there is a clear hint of data tampering, somebody eventually is able to spot it. When this happens, a contradictory paper is generally published and, in some cases, an investigation is carried out to understand what happened. However, the main challenge is when dealing with the subtle, meticulous kinds of data manipulation. This consists in removing one or more data points from a dataset to achieve statistical significance, a measure that is generally used to demonstrate that a theory supported by the experimental data is correct. In other cases, it consists of “photoshopping” images to make the reader believe they see something although that something shouldn’t be there. Sometimes it is about “data beautification”, which consists of any procedure that increases the “quality” of presented data. This latter procedure is somewhat similar to what some supermarkets do when they want to increase their fruit sales: by adding wax on the peal of apples to make them more appealing to the buyer. There are examples of scientific misconduct everywhere on the Internet, but for the interested reader I would recommend reading the story of Olivier Voinnet, a famous plant biologist that has been accused of scientific fraud in multiple papers throughout his career. I suggest this case in particular for two reasons: 1) his case of scientific misconduct was reportedly due to multiple “data beautifications”, Photoshopped blots, etc, and 2), he used to teach – before the investigation was concluded – a genetics course I attended at ETH Zurich a few years ago. His “ego” could be felt from the front to the back of the lecture hall (for a deep analysis of scientific misconduct due to scientists’ narcissism, please read Bruno Lemaitre’s book “An essay on science and narcissism” (3)). The main problem with these scientific behaviors is that “small cheating” is harder to detect. Even when this happens – still most of the times – this knowledge is not transformed in a publication because, to publish a rebuttal paper, disproving a previously published one, journals require scientists to build up a convincing story, with many supportive data. Disproving something in science is rather difficult and requires much more work than demonstrating that something is true. For this reason, scientists often keep this knowledge to themselves, leaving partially untrue discoveries out there.
How are PIs funded?
PIs need money to run a laboratory: they have to pay the salaries of their scientists, the costs of the equipment, taxes, publication’s fees, etc. But where is this money coming from?
There are public and private granting agencies. Basically, a PI can submit a research proposal, where he or she describes the potential benefit of studying something specific. If the application was successful, they will then receive the funding. Granting agencies, in order to decide how to distribute their money, are often following a similar strategy as academic institutions do to hire their Professors. They often go through the academic curriculum and look for the journals in which the applicant has published their research throughout their career. The more publications in high-impact journals, the higher the chance of getting funded. Same old story.
Recapitulating what has been said so far: scientists become famous for their discoveries published in top-notch journals. Scientists pay journals for publishing their discoveries and in order to read about the discoveries of others. Scientists are chosen to become leaders of a laboratory group if they have published in renowned journals during their career. Similarly, when they are in charge of the finances of a laboratory group, they receive more funding when they have a “respectable” academic curriculum, meaning a history of high-impact publications. The publication system further discourages the publication of single observations, which could be of great use for the scientific community. It also discourages the publication of negative results. Instead, it indirectly encourages scientific misconduct, by creating a competitive and egocentric environment. All these elements, in turn, cause dramatic effects on worldwide scientific productivity, both in terms of quality and quantity. Further, they enhance scientific inequality between the developed and developing world.
Those gaining advantage from all of this are journals and only journals. They maintain a very profitable business, causing discontent and distress within the scientific community and ridiculing the unaware general public, who has trust in research.
In the next paragraph, we will understand how journals maintain the current publishing system in place.
How do journals maintain this system?
There are two predominant ways for journals to maintain the system: rewarding and lobbying.
Rewarding: all the established and important Professors made their fame by publishing in journals. As everybody would do, they believe their achievements are the result of their efforts and intelligence. If they made it within this system, and they believe they deserved it, most of them would likely think the system works well enough. Even when important scientists speak out against journals, this isn’t enough. Among the many scientists, Randy Schekman – the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – in an article in ‘The Guardian’ accused the major journals of ruining science (check out Culturico’s interview with Randy Schekman)
Lobbying: in order to maintain a thriving business, journals need to find a practical way to make somebody else happy about the status quo. The individuals profiting from journals’ commercial activities are those PIs who have become popular within the system and have been selected to become reviewing editors for a specific top-notch journal. Reviewing editors are established Professors that, while still performing research for their public academic institution, concomitantly “work” for journals in the reviewing process of papers. Among other advantages, they are able to decide which reviewers are selected for a specific manuscript, they are further able to influence the acceptance or rejection of a paper and they can also read and get inspired by unpublished papers. Being a reviewing editor of a top-notch journal is not only helpful for a PI (individualistically speaking) but is also very prestigious. Well known journals selectively pick their candidates, choosing among the most influential scientists in prominent institutions.
For an example, check out the board of Science reviewing editors here. Because of the alphabetic order, the first one of the list is Adriano Aguzzi, a leading scientist in the field of prion diseases (neurodegenerative diseases such as the famous Mad Cow Disease), whose lab is located at the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. In a recent talk given at the University of Zurich – Aguzzi – not only managed to discuss his unquestionable research results but also managed to repeatedly brag about his multiple publications in Nature, Cell and Science during the short presentation. This example provides evidence of how the top-notch journals managed to sell their brand to the most important scientists.
Journals are therefore able, within this system, to influence the scientific community in order to maintain the status quo, which is advantageous to them.
How do we challenge the system?
There are several ways to challenge the system, but it involves formulating a strategy to break apart the lobby of scientific journals. So far, there have been minor attempts to challenge specific issues raised by the current scientific publishing system: for instance, because of the mounting pressure within the scientific community, some low impact journals started to accept negative results for publication. Instead, Science Matters is a recently founded journal that publishes single experimental observations. Other journals, such as eLife, are fully “open access”, which means there are no subscription costs, although researchers are still required to pay in order to publish. More and more journals are becoming open access, thanks to the pressure of the scientific community. In particular, one major effort is made by an international consortium of research funders, which established an initiative called “Plan S”. Plan S is based on the idea that publicly funded research must be published only on open access journals. The consortium, supported by the major funding agencies of the world (see a list here), is currently putting top-notch journals under great pressure. Another effort to allow free and open access publications was made by Cornell University by founding ArXiv, an online platform where scientists can quickly upload their manuscript without peer-review. The system worked very well in Physics, and a similar – and also successful – attempt was made for natural science with BioRxiv. However, scientists still feel the need to publish in journals, limiting these platforms as tools to quickly communicate the results of a research.
However, although important, all of these efforts remain insufficient.
The best way to interrupt the vicious circle is to act simultaneously on different levels. The best scenario is for leading scientists to exit the scientific community and join the international political community, who know nothing about science. Ideally, scientists working within international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) could promote the foundation of an international scientific body that regulates and legislates scientific issues. International bodies for instance exist to regulate the world economy, but no body exists to regulate science. In an ideal world, we could imagine the existence of an UN-based publishing online platform, free of charge. Research papers from all over the world would be published there, with several advantages:
- No publishing fees.
- No readership costs.
- No need for scientific journals to exist.
- A single worldwide database instead of a multitude of individual journals.These points will lead to further positive outcomes:
- Reduced scientific inequality, allowing research labs in developing countries to make their voices heard,
- No need for individualistic competition in science: researchers could cooperate more with each other, within and among different research groups.
- No pressure to publish on top-notch journals, a disincentive to cheating. The focus would shift towards the quality of research.
- Eventually, all the previous points would lead to a faster, more solid, generation of knowledge.
There are some flaws, though, in this idea. But there are solutions to these issues too.
Problem n.1: The peer-review system.
The peer-review system is generally anonymous, meaning that reviewing comments are not public, and the name of the reviewer is not released.
Solution n.1: this model, although liked by many scientists, is rather antiquated. Indeed, companies such as TripAdvisor or Airbnb, among others, have introduced a rating system to review the quality of restaurants, hotels, etc (see Figure 4). People write reviews and give ratings with their public name. Keeping the reviewers’ names public allows transparency and increases the quality of the revisions. Similarly, an UN-based publishing online platform could make use of a rating and reviewing system that is open to everybody within the scientific community. Registered users are allowed to rate and comment on papers. The peer-review would therefore become a rather open and public process.
Problem n.2: Competition.
Even with such a platform, science would remain highly competitive. The choice of the best candidates to become PIs based on their list of publications is currently the way to determine who is a better scientist.
Solution n.2: the solution to this issue is multifaceted. The quality of a research paper could be defined by two factors, once an international free platform for publications exists: the number of citations and the score received. The first factor is a decent approximation of the quality of a paper, once the journal bias is no longer present. The second is a direct assessment given by other scientists. These scores will also contribute to generate individual scores for scientists, thereby helping to rank scientists. As science does not follow a “democratic” system approach, perhaps individuals should not be given the same scoring “weight”, or importance. Why?
Let’s imagine a Professor in Physics rating a paper in the field of Genetics. He or she won’t possess the same knowledge of a Professor working in the same field. Or, imagine a PhD student versus a Professor: we can make a similar assumption. A strong algorithm should be assigning individual scoring weights depending on several parameters, such as: the field of study of the rater, their position, their individual score (given by number of citations combined with the received ratings).
Would such a platform also solve other issues? Yes, and here is why.
- Negative results and individual observations could be published without problems.
- Scientists would be able to choose their individual style of communication, which won’t be the one imposed by a private business.
- Bad research would receive bad ratings, and generally bad comments, with experimental evidence made up by single individual observations.
- It would be easier to follow up on research projects. For instance, one could imagine the following fictional “scientific conversation” on the platform:
Published paper (Research group 1) –> Professor X (Research Group 2) is unconvinced about something and asks publicly for clarifications –> The research group 1 responds publishing a single observation.
Or: Published paper (Research group 1) –> Follow-up paper (Research Group 1) –> Follow-up paper (Research group 2)
These scenarios would be of help to build more cooperation between research groups.
Finally, academic institutions and funding bodies would have to change their approach as well. Instead of taking decisions based on a list of journals in which a scientist has published, universities could actually read papers to make decisions, interview individual candidates with greater effort than today’s, perhaps trying to understand whether they would be good teachers too. In addition to creating a “UN-based online publishing platform”, there is an alternative entrance point to break the vicious circle: if top Universities agree to stop publishing in journals, by creating a common platform or publishing on their own, individual online website. Although this appears to be a simpler solution, it is not that easy, as lobbying journals have strong ties with important Professors within the most important institutions of the world.
The best solution to eradicate the scientific publishing lobbying, therefore, seems to be the general community, and not the scientific community itself. Politicians (scientists aren’t however excluded) could be the best solution to improve science, generating a huge, incalculable, impact. With the advice of mindful scientists, they could push for the formation of an international scientific body that would promote a drastic shift in how the scientific publishing system works, for instance by creating – as suggested – a free online publishing platform. International law should definitely apply to science, as it seeks the progress of humanity as a whole.
- Fleming, A., “On the antibacterial action of cultures of a Penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenza”, Br J Exp Pathol, 1929.
- Kronick, D.A., “A history of scientific and technical periodicals: the origins and development of the scientific and technological press, 1665-1790”, Scarecrow Press, 1962.
- Lemaitre, B., “An essay on science and narcissism: how do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?”, 2015.
- Levecque, K. et al., “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students”, Research Policy, 2017.