In June 2019 I had the pleasure of discussing the future of the scientific publication system with Professor Caroline S. Wagner from Ohio State University, an expert in how science and technology are used to decide public policy. Professor Wagner has led a successful career in studying network dynamics within science. I was fortunate enough to discuss many related subjects over the duration of the interview, and I will briefly summarise the main talking points of our discussion.
Watch a short version of the interview (full interview below):
Watch the full interview:
The opinions described are those that Professor Wagner has provided in this interview and do not necessarily reflect those of the Culturico editorial team.
The interview was preceded by a discussion on Culturico regarding several articles that were critical of the current publishing system for scientific research (here the links: 1, 2, and 3). Notably, we conducted our first interview with Nobel prize winner Professor Randy Schekman, a fierce critic of what he describes as the triumvirate of scientific publishing (Nature, Science, and Cell), who he believes are profiting unfairly from the work of scientists due to the perception that publishing in one of these journals is a must to become a successful scientist. These articles have provoked a thoughtful dialogue regarding the way science is communicated (1, 2, and 3). As a commenter in this dialogue, we invited Professor Wagner for an interview and she kindly accepted our invitation to discuss this further.
Over the 55 minutes we discussed many subjects relating to the communication of science. In particular, the topics presented below served as focal points of the discussion.
Scientific publishing as a continuously evolving network
Since much of her research involves the study of networks, we devoted some time to discussing the network that currently exists within the scientific community. Print journals were for a long time the only way that science could be communicated between academics. Since this is the oldest method of scientific communication, it has had the longest time to develop into its current form. This includes establishing the peer review and editing process, which are conducted by experts in a given field and are organised by the publishers. One argument against radically changing such an established system is that the communication medium that replaces it will not have had such a long time to develop and mature as the current system. However, this would not prevent new systems from developing at the same time, and indeed many new communication platforms are being developed, such as pre-print servers for publishing results online quickly without a potentially lengthy peer review process (more on this later).
The important role scientific publishers play
The scientific community is now larger than it has ever been, with more people being educated to a postgraduate level. As a result, there are far more participants in this network, and it is continuing to expand. In addition, Professor Wagner also described the “recombination of knowledge” that occurs between different scientific disciplines, which is facilitated by the increased communication within science. This is also known as interdisciplinary research, which occurs between different scientific disciplines and can produce advances that would not be possible with expertise from one research field alone. She asserted that scientific articles are the formal unit of communication between scientists and are essential components in communicating science between disciplines. As the journals are key mediators in organising the reviewing and editing of these articles, they ensure that the work within them is of a high quality and reliable, acting as a filter through which scientists from other fields can view unfamiliar work. This is necessary, since it is very difficult for a scientist from one field to evaluate the results from a completely different research field, and therefore they rely on the expertise of other people (such as reviewers) to signal that the work is reliable, accurate, and performed correctly. Professor Wagner believes that this is the key feature of journal publishers, and that it should not be removed or hastily replaced. Any other system that could perform the same function would need a similar method of filtering to ensure communication of reliable information between the scientific disciplines.
Can the scientific network be corrupted?
This question was intended to explore the possibility that some members of the scientific community, such as publishers, journals, and individual researchers, could benefit from dishonesty, deception or distortion of information within this network. Professor Wagner responded that people would be unlikely to profit for very long if engaging in dishonest or deceptive activities. As scientific research is an endeavour that increasingly relies on collaboration and cooperation, research groups and individual researchers are increasingly reliant on others for their success. It follows that you would want to collaborate with reliable and trustworthy colleagues, and anybody engaging in dishonest activities would soon lose their reputation, and hence their desirability as a collaborator.
Reputation and attention, the currency of scientists
In order to earn a good reputation, or to get attention for your work, it is important to have something of value to offer. Once this is established, then many more people will want to collaborate with you and take an interest in your work. As Professor Wagner asserted, successful publishing requires both reputation and visibility. You need a good reputation for your work to be visible, but you also need your results to be important enough to capture the attention of the community. For this reason, collaborating with others who have a good reputation is highly desirable for junior academics. It will make your work more visible; it will have input from an expert in the field, and it will likely be more trusted by other scientists working on the same research topic, since the collaborator already has a reputation for high quality research. Furthermore, an established academic will be concerned about the quality of the work the collaboration has generated, since their reputation is then associated with it, and should therefore provide valuable input.
Risk vs return for young academics
An interesting theme that arose was the negative competition that can emerge within research. Our previous article detailed how this can occur, and another of our articles describes a well-known example of how scientific malpractice has resulted from such pressures. With so much reliance on high impact publications, there is a temptation for academics to overthink, oversell and overinterpret their results in order to write a groundbreaking research paper. However, Professor Wagner believes that this is more of an issue for younger academics who have less to lose and more to gain from such bold claims. Her argument is that established academics are usually well respected and successful in the later stage of their careers and would be less likely to risk the damage to their reputation that an overstated claim could cause. As the most influential and established nodes in the network of scientific communication, these researchers add stability to the system and others who are engaging in risky behaviours won’t be able to become such an indispensable part of the network. They either become well respected academics, or they are excluded from the network.
Open access and alternative forms of communicating
In the concluding part of our discussion, we talked about the rise in open access publications and whether these represented the future of academic publishing. This is a pertinent question given that there are initiatives, such as Plan S, which aim to only fund research that will be published in open access journals. Although free to access, there are still costs for researchers to publish in open access journals. These are to pay for the running costs of publishing, such as the editing or running the server where the articles are archived. An interesting point raised was that through these running costs there is an unfair disadvantage for less well-funded research groups, who have less funds to cover such fees. This represents a difficulty for smaller groups that would not be experienced by larger research groups. Although many of the print journals do not charge these publishing fees, there are some that do, and this is especially true of the larger publishing groups for the higher impact factor publications. An important issue that scientists and publishers are still debating is the amount that these companies should charge the authors to publish their work. This is an ongoing discussion within the community.
Pre-print servers represent a new alternative way to communicate research, enabling researchers to publish work quickly and without the need of a publisher. However, these servers do not have a peer review process or editor to control what is uploaded, thereby removing a filter that is used by traditional journals. Since reputation takes a long time and effort to build and maintain, it is highly valued within science. This could prevent questionable data and poorly performed science from being spread, as a highly regarded researcher would be unlikely to upload anything that could damage their reputation. In contrast, junior scientists without the established reputation may be more likely to make a riskier decision to publish their data prematurely.
The main themes that emerged throughout the talk were the longevity and evolution of the print journal system, the establishment of a growing scientific community that is increasingly reliant on cooperation, and reputation as an incentive for publishing reliable high-quality research. Although there are many pressures on scientists to publish in certain journals, there are also pressures for the publishing system to change. As Professor Wagner stated, the scientific network, and in particular scientific publishing, has taken a long time to evolve into its current form. These pressures that currently exist will likely shape this evolution in the years to come.