This is a commentary article of “Interview with Prof. Caroline Wagner: on scientific communication and journals”, published on the 29th of July, 2019.
Interview – Highlights:
Journals and the evolution of the scientific publishing system
At the beginning of her interview, Prof. Wagner reminds the public that journals have existed for centuries, as they are the privileged way to communicate science.
However, in later statements she contradicts herself, asserting that the scientific publishing system is adapting and evolving over time to accommodate the needs of the current scientific society. She substantially claims the system has flaws, and compares it to any “evolutionary system”, in particular biological evolution, that evolves (changes) over time under certain selective pressures. No evolutionary system can be optimal, she explains.
Journals appeared when paper-based transmission of knowledge was the only possible alternative to oral communication. Yet, journals have survived the birth and the large expansion of the Internet. Nowadays, users are still required to pay to be granted access to the content of many journals, and when this is not the case – for open-access journals – authors are required to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs).
Although science and technology have progressed immensely over the past centuries, science is predominantly being communicated in exactly the same way. New alternatives to this have been emerging in recent years, but this is not because the system is self-adapting, as Prof. Wagner claims. This is because a fervent section of the scientific community is pushing for change, and for further change to take place we need people to act. The progress of science and the entirety of human knowledge, including how they are communicated, is not the result of evolution itself. We are indeed under no selective evolutionary pressure to generate new knowledge and innovative strategies to organize it. Rather, progress is a result of scientists’ immense efforts. A change in the scientific publishing system is needed, and doing so requires an active process, not just somebody passively watching “evolution” taking place on a screen with popcorn.
Preprint services, such as Arxiv or Biorxiv, are free platforms where scientists can upload their research results in the form of papers. This is free of charge, and does not involve any peer review. Prof. Wagner says these are models currently being tested through the evolutionary and self-adapting system she proposed. However, in her opinion these are not good models, because scientific papers can contain technical or interpretative mistakes prior to peer review. She asks the audience to please agree on the fundamental importance of the peer-review process, which aims at reducing the probability of scientific imprecisions and flaws (1).
Although the existence of a peer-review process is certainly of help in improving the quality of scientific data, mistakes and errors continuously appear in papers published in well-known scientific journals – in which the reviewing process is standardized. Here you can find a short but famous list of peer reviewed papers that were published although containing large inaccuracies, including Andrew Wakefield’s infamous study about vaccines.
If preprints become the standard publishing platforms for science, we could imagine that different ways to increase the quality of published research would emerge (not self-emerge…). For instance, I previously proposed an idea in which the whole scientific community can comment and rate scientific articles appearing on preprint platforms, with the possibility of asking the article’s authors for further confirmatory experiments, or to debate the proper use or misuse of a certain technique to answer a scientific question.
As of now, the peer-review system is based on comments provided by experts in the field. These comments are completely anonymous, and the lack of public exposure can cause a drastic reduction in the quality of the revision, as keeping the process this way increases the chances that personal and emotional factors prevail over purely scientific considerations when reviewers operate. Further, revisions are kept private between the journal, the reviewer and the authors (with exceptions). Allowing for a public revision would allow people to further comment, and perhaps disprove inappropriate reviewers’ comments or requests.
Finally, the peer-review system cannot prevent scientific manipulations. In order to prevent misconduct, we should ensure that the insalubrious competition existing among scientists is eradicated. In order to do that, journals should be stripped of their hegemonic position in science communication (we explained why journals cause a negative competition among scientists here).
Journals are entities that operate according to market’s forces
Prof. Wagner stresses the point that big journals are not bad actors in the system, and that they provide immense benefits for the scientific community, such as tools, resources and platforms to communicate results.
She also claims that journals have the right to largely benefit economically, as they play according to market’s forces. Put simply, as long as institutions are willing to pay them, they are not doing anything wrong.
If something is legal, it does not necessarily mean it is ethical. As we are talking about public funding and public research – the progress of humanity – its destiny should not be placed in the hands of private and for-profit companies. Perhaps these large corporate publishers haven’t done anything wrong per se, but lobbying for their own interests (at the expense of science itself) is certainly a behavior to blame, and we – as scientists – should encourage a change to take place.
Putting all journals out of business
Prof. Wagner claims that the idea of putting all journals out of business is a misinformed view. With this sentence, she particularly wishes to criticize my article, which describes the negative role played by scientific publishing houses in shaping the present of our scientific system. According to her, my opinion means not understanding how the system operates.
The idea that journals should be put out of business is actually a consequence of an informed and unbiased look of the current publishing system.
I do not doubt that Prof. Caroline Wagner also has a very informed view about the topic – she is one of the most established experts in the field of science communication. Rather, I doubt her view is unbiased: to mention the most relevant points, she is the editor of the “Science and Public Policy” journal (not an open-access journal) and she was an Elected Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is the publisher of the journal Science, one of those belonging to the “triumvirate” of hegemonic scientific journals, as Prof. Randy Schekman defined them in a recent interview for Culturico.
Eradicating the way science is currently made public would be a new scientific revolution, and as for many revolutions it may bring chaos, but also to a new beginning, and fresh air is what everybody needs.
- Rennie, D. et al., “Peer review in heath sciences”, 1999