Alexander Grossmann

The Ethics of Public Post-Publication Peer Review

In my last blog I argued that carrying out a completely transparent public evaluation of research results – Public Post-Publication Peer Review (4PR) – is the best way to ensure scientific quality. I strongly believe that and in some ways started the publishing platform ScienceOpen as an experiment to test this hypothesis. But what happens in the extreme case when a manuscript is submitted that can be perceived as outside of the scientific discourse – “crackpot” or “pseudoscience” theories from perpetual motion to parapsychology abound. A whole list of pseudoscience topics can be found here. It is easy to reject the papers on the taxonomy of unicorns, but there are some fields of alternative medicine for example where the lines are not so clearly drawn. Politically charged fields such as climate change or genetically modified foods can also present a grey zone where legitimate research and industry-sponsored propaganda can be difficult to distinguish. In principal one could think about two options of an editorial workflow to cope with those submissions.

Quality Check in Public Post-Publication Peer Review: Option 1

In our Public Post-Publication Peer Review model we still require a first editorial check that should filter out the clearly non-scientific work written by non-scientists outside of any norms of scientific communication. Papers that then pass this check should be evaluated by the scientific community in a transparent and public way. But in some cases the editors doing a first editorial check may be unsure whether a paper is sound science and may call on one or more experts to give their opinion – a pre-publication peer review. If these experts give the paper a very poor review, what should happen next? ScienceOpen is committed to providing an open platform for discussion – is it then against our principles to begin rejecting some manuscripts based on a pre-publication peer review process? One editorial policy could simply be for ScienceOpen to reserve the right to reject all papers which do not meet some minimum standards of scientific communication. This sounds straightforward but if defining those standards in a formal and transparent way seems to be almost impossible. Without such a formal and transparent reasoning, the rejection could be perceived as arbitrary. and so violate the principle of public post publication peer review as such. It would protect the reputation of the platform and of the scientific community. There could also be public health considerations if papers make false claims about the health benefits of certain products which should not be underestimated. So rejection is an attractive option.

Quality Check in Public Post-Publication Peer Review: Option 2

Another editorial policy could be to inform authors about the poor reviews and should they choose to publish their work anyway to publish the paper with the poor reviews attached. This would it be in line with the Public Post-Publication Peer Review model and a platform model of publishing where curating of content is kept to a minimum. Because the internet has made it so easy to “publish” ideas in the meaning of “make public” we can assume that there is an open access journal somewhere with such low standards that will happily publish the findings on alien DNA even without any peer review at all. The “peer reviewed” Journal of Cryptozoology would probably be happy to publish that unicorn taxonomy paper. And of course an editorial check is not going to pick up every case of pseudoscience or fraudulent science so the post publication evaluation is absolutely necessary. This is a principled but risky approach.

Open to Suggestions…

The ScienceOpen platform will begin publishing in January 2014 and is in the process of fine-tuning its editorial policy. While the problem of “crackpot” submissions will not come up often, it is important to have transparent policies in place before confronted with a climate change denial paper. Because it is so easy to make ideas public in our digital networked world, this is a difficult problem that will require a concerted effort by the entire scientific community.

We welcome any feedback on the best way to move forward!

25th ESC Berlin 2014

Give the pioneers a chance – Open access and closing the reputational gap for young scientists

Within the last few months I had the chance to talk to many researchers, young scientists, and students in different areas of science. I liked very much to talk to this specific audience as for example at the 25th European Students’ Conference 2014 in Berlin last Wednesday where I had been invited to organize an afternoon workshop about perspectives of scientific publishing with about 100 participants. – you may find the slides of my presentation here. It was terrific to spend almost three hours with so many students which were keen to find out more about the future development of scholarly communication.
Why is this so interesting to discuss with young researchers about scientific communication? When I recently attended a panel discussion on scholarly publishing, I realized that a significant part of the audience were Ph.D. students or post-docs. When one of the speakers talked about new opportunities in Open Access publishing, a very intensive discussion began. Almost all young scientists in the audience were excited and motivated by the principles and vision behind Open Access. They said they would like to change the current publishing system and participate in a more open conversation about their research with peers. I was thrilled because that is what we are trying to develop on the ScienceOpen platform.

However, “If I publish my work Open Access, I will have difficulties in my future career, I am afraid, because I need the highest Impact Factor (IF) possible” said one of the young scholars, dampening the enthusiasm, and in the end most of his colleagues agreed.

 “If I publish my work Open Access, I will have difficulties in my future career, I am afraid, because I need the highest Impact Factor (IF) possible.”

But is this a real threat for those parts of the scientific community that will have the most important impact on the future of academia? To find out more about the perspectives of grad students and junior researchers at institutions or universities, I tried to find arguments against active participation in Open Access publishing. Although they would like to have a public discussion about their science with peers, almost everyone I talked to stressed that they have been instructed by their academic senior advisor to aim for a high-IF journal to publish their work. And most young scientists had the impression that there are relatively few quality Open Access journals and even many of these have a low IF, if any. Therefore I next asked some of their supervisors and professors for their thoughts. Amazingly, many of them emphasized that their graduate students and junior researchers themselves insisted on publishing in a “Champions League” journal, or at least, in a “Premiere League” journal with a considerably high IF. Who was right? I believe that we don’t need to answer this question in order to understand why young researchers feel so frightened about Open Access publishing opportunities.

Let’s summarize the major reasons that motivate a researcher to publish her/his work:

(A) To record and archive results.
(B) To share new findings with colleagues.
(C) To receive feedback from experts / peers.
(D) To get recognition by the scientific community.
(E) To report results to the public, funding bodies, and others.

Next, let us analyze which reasons for publishing are more relevant to young researchers in comparison with others. Reporting results (E) is more formal reason which is required when one has received a financial contribution by funding organizations. As for archiving (A), it is not a particular motivation for junior scientists. By contrast, sharing with colleagues (B) may have more significance for those groups that have just started to build up their academic network. We all agree that younger scientists must not only actively promote themselves by sharing new results of their work, but also to intensify dialogue with their peers. They therefore also depend on feedback from experts and peers (C) much more than a senior researcher who has established his or her expertise across decades. Both (B) and (C) will hopefully result in recognition from the scientific community (D), which has long been considered the conditio sine qua non in academia for all junior researchers if they want to achieve a successful academic career. Everyone I talked to agreed and most of my scholarly colleagues confirmed that this list appeared to be consistent and complete in describing the relevance of publishing for young researchers.

But where are the Impact Factors in my list? Where are big journal brands?

Until now, recognition has been measured by citations. Today, with a more and more frequent usage of social networks, we should broaden our view and associate credit for scientific work also with mentions, likes, or retweets. The latter attributes of modern communication in social networks is an immediate and uniquely fast way to provide and earn credits, also in scholarly publishing. There are more and more examples where an excellent paper got credited within minutes after it had been posted – open access. Citations are important, but it is the article and the individuals who authored that work which should get credited. And there is growing evidence that papers published Open Access are read and ultimately cited more often. Impact factor was a “toxic influence” on science, as Randy Shekman, Nobel laureate in Medicine 2013 recently stated, that markets only an exclusive journal brand rather than measuring scientific impact.

“Impact factor was a “toxic influence” on science.”

Finally, we do not need big journal brands or an Impact Factor for evaluating the relevance and quality of research. Neither for senior scientists, nor for young researchers. The latter group, however, has a significant intrinsic advantage: they are much more accustomed to communicating with social media tools. If they continue to use these when starting their academic career, they will strongly influence traditional, old-fashioned ways of crediting academic research. My conclusion can therefore be considered as an invitation to the younger generation of researchers: Substitute pay-walled journals with new open science technologies to publicly publish your scientific results; continue to use social network tools to communicate about and discuss recent research with others; and adopt alternative metrics to measure scientific relevance in addition to classical citation. It will be your generation in a decade from now that will craft the careers of other young researchers. Nobody else. Therefore you should be not afraid of losing credit when publishing Open Access or submitting your next paper to an alternative open science platform. The more people like you who follow that path of modern scholarly publishing, the less emphasis will be put on classical incentives for academic evaluation. Open Access and active communication about new results in science by social media and open science platforms such as ScienceOpen can increase both usage and impact for your work.

“We do not need big journal brands or an Impact Factor for evaluating the relevance and quality of research.”

And my request to senior scientists who are presently judging the quality of the younger generation of researchers: challenge yourself to look at their social networking record and their willingness to shape the new measures of recognition. And do not forget: Access is not a sufficient condition for citation, but it is a necessary one. Open Access dramatically increases the number of potential users of any given article by adding those users who would otherwise have been unable to access it, as Stevan Harnad and Tim Brody demonstrated already 10 years ago. Give the pioneers a chance – it’s our next generation for future research!

“Give the pioneers a chance – it’s our next generation for future research.”

Alexander Grossmann

Alexander Grossmann

Journal Impact Factors – Time to say goodbye?

Along with over 10,000 others, I signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). Why? I believe that the impact factor was a useful tool for the paper age, but that we now have the capability to develop much more powerful tools to evaluate research. For hundreds of years scientific discourse took place on paper – letters written and sent with the post, research cited in one’s own articles printed and distributed by publishers. Citation was the most direct way in many cases to respond directly to the research of another scientist. In the 1970s as scientific output began to boom, the impact factor was developed as a measure for librarians to manage their collections. Impact factors are calculated exclusively by Thompson Reuters for specific journals from the number of citations received by articles in year X published during the previous two years. Therefore, an impact factor can reflect the changing status of a journal within a research area, as the number of citations increases or declines – assuming that the number of citations an article receives is a measure of its “importance” for the scientific community. But how did we get from there to a number that informs all hierarchies in the natural sciences, from professor to lab tech from elite university to community college. For decades the impact factor was considered the single criterion to quantify the prestige of journals with which to attract submissions from researchers and subscriptions from libraries. During my academic career as a physicist I published more than 20 papers in international journals between 1993 and 2001. I was eager to succeed and made sure that all of my papers were published in journals which had an impact factor, some of them even submitted to high-impact “luxury” journals (to quote Randy Schekman). However I also submitted one of my papers to a journal with no impact factor because it had been recently launched. The result was that this work was only rarely read as the new journal had a low subscription base so only very few people could access it – which resulted in fewer citations, the coin of the realm.

“For decades the impact factor was considered the single criterion to quantify the prestige of journals with which to attract submissions from researchers and subscriptions from libraries.”

While the impact factor may be useful in evaluating a journal, it can neither reflect the quality of a specific article nor evaluate the relevance of the research summarized in that article. George Lozano calculated in a London School of Economics blog post that the number of most highly cited papers that are published in high impact factor journals have been continually dropping since 1991. Even less can an impact factor be used to evaluate the performance of an individual researcher. Nevertheless, that is still the common practice for example in evaluating scientific research of an institution or for application procedures for young professors. Since there were no other metrics available, impact factors were unfortunately used to evaluate things for which it was never intended. Many scientists are frustrated with this system and are speaking out. See for example the excellent writing by Stephen Curry, Bob Lalasz, Paul Wouters, Björn Brembs and Michael Eisen.

“The widely held notion that high-impact publications determine who gets academic jobs, grants and tenure is wrong.”  (Michael Eisen 2012)

Some other apparent and genuine problems associated with the impact factor are the static way in which that factor is calculated: The time span for citations is limited to 24 months at maximum. This does not reflect the totally different average citation periods in different scientific disciplines. For example, in mathematics the median of citations will appear after several years at average and therefore the majority of citations are not reflected in the impact factor for the journal in which that article appeared. In other disciplines, as for example biochemistry, citations occur more quickly than in other areas of research. As a result, the impact factor cannot be compared between different disciplines. In biology, the impact factor of 4 of the top 5 journals in that field was at about 6, whereas in medicine the IF span from 12 to above 50 for the top 5 medical journals. As a result of its rigid time period of two calendar years to calculate the impact of citations for a given journal, the following effect is not considered, too: If an article was published in January 2011, citations of this article in 2013 will be counted over the full 24 months for the 2013 impact factor. If the same article will have appeared in December 2011, one can easily recognize that there were only 13 rather than 24 months for this given article to gotten read and considered for a new publications which will have cited that article. Publishers know this and try to save review articles and work by prominent scientists for their January issues. Of course, an author himself can push the number of citations for his article up when citing himself elsewhere (66 journals were banned for this practice). This manipulation is sometimes hard to discover but specific niche disciplines can develop “citation circles” in which each member frequently cites the other. Moreover, having understood how an impact factor is calculated, it is also an easy task for an experienced editor of a journal to systematically “boost” an impact for example by editorials, conference proceedings, or letters in in which further citations for a given journal can be generated which influence the citation count but not the basis of articles when calculating the impact factor. Therefore, some editors like to invite editorials or special papers for their journal (or a journal which is part of that publishing house) in which other articles of this journal were cited. It also happened to me and some of my colleagues in the past that an editor of a reputed high-IF journal asked to include one or more additional references of that specific journal before acceptance of publication. So let me ask: is this really an appropriate measure for the quality of scientific work?

Some high-impact factor “journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called ‘impact factor'” (Randy Schekman in TheGuardian)

For a fair and unique evaluation of science and those who did that research a transparent and flexible metrics is required. An alternative approach was suggested by J. E. Hirsch in 2005 who defined an index to quantify an individual’s scientific research output which was later called h-index. The h-index concentrates of the scientific output and its citations for an individual researchers rather than a journal. However, one problem for developing new metrics is that citation information is proprietary information, owned either by the CrossRef member publishers, by Thompson Reuters, Scopus or Google. A free, open access citation database would allow new experiments in evaluating articles and researchers. And of course there are further problems with concentrating solely on citations as the measure of influence as papers are increasingly made public as preprints and working papers. Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman states that by the time his most important paper was finally published, there were already over 150 derivative papers that he knew of. A new quality metric should consider not only the citation of an article in the classical sense but also the different channels of feedback and citations which are used today to comment on a scientific article, for example via Twitter, Facebook, Mendeley, CiteULike, blogs, or other social media.

“…an easily computable index, h which gives an estimate of the importance, significance, and broad impact of a scientist’s cumulative research contributions.” (J.E. Hirsch 2005)

Recently, a US-based start-up company Altmetric started to collect mentions of academic research in all relevant social media channels on a day-to-day basis which appears to be more appropriate today to display the feedback about a scholarly paper than counting citations in classical journals. Users, both readers and authors can monitor, search, and measure all feedback and conversations concerning specific articles, their own articles, as well as those published by competitors. If for example a new paper has been twittered three times within the first week after publication, Altmetric shows these tweets explicitly and links to the original comment. In comparison, the first “classical” citation of the same article in another journal will be probably published several months (or years) later. And two years later these citations will count up for the impact factor of the journal in which that article appeared. So why should we wait for that feedback and use a metrics which is based on the journal brand rather than the individual relevance of an article? This is also the reason why we integrated Altmetric as an article level metrics feature for our new venture ScienceOpen which I have initiated and created from my experiences in publishing indusrty and as a researcher. It seems quite obvious that the impact factor is not the best or even a good measure for the quality of a scientific article, a researcher or a research program. But it will take a concerted effort by universities, funding bodies, and researchers themselves to change habits. A collective change in evaluation procedures and personal behavior in academic publishing could boost the development towards the right direction. And it will take new experiments and new tools to develop optimal quality metrics. Both researchers and librarians have a powerful key role in this movement and I am interested how seriously and quickly they will make use of this role in the near future.

“… it will take a concerted effort by universities, funding bodies, and researchers themselves to change habits.”

Public Post-Publication Peer Review

In my recent posts I  tried to summarize where we are coming from when talking about academic publishing today. Peer review is an important, if not the most important feature of publishing in science. We should therefore ask ourselves whether the present process of evaluating a new scientific work is still adequate today in terms of functionality, interactivity and speed.

How has peer review been shaped by workflow issues in the past?

For decades the majority of scholarly journals have relied on a process of “peer review” to ensure a certain scientific standard for their publications. During this process the journal’s editor or an external editor-in-chief (EiC) assigns usually two, sometimes three independent peers to anonymously review a new manuscript which has been submitted to a specific journal. Depending on the feedback of the reviewers and also the authors’ constructive reply to their comments, the journal editor or EiC decides whether to accept the manuscript for publication or reject it. If their manuscript is rejected, authors are free to resubmit the same work to another journal and so on. Apparently the main goal of peer review is quality control and its method has been anonymous reports by scientists working in the same field. Communication between scientists, journal editors and external reviewers was almost exclusively limited to letter post until the mid-nineties. From a practical point of view there were no alternatives either for researchers or publishers to manage the review process. The complete peer review workflow was thus determined by the given communication possibilities at the time when most scholarly journals were launched and operated, but not by an analysis of the optimum result for a given problem. Consequently commercial and widely used online manuscript processing systems such as ScholarOneTM or Editorial ManagerTM have essentially recreated this workflow in a digital environment.
I want to clearly emphasize this observation because prior discussions of alternatives to peer review in scholarly literature have been influenced by claims that the present dominate process is the only way to ensure a certain scientific standard. Nevertheless, the present process seems to deliver a sufficient certainty for both journal editors and researchers as we have seen in the past. There have been only comparatively few examples of misconduct or significant mistakes discovered for works which were published in peer reviewed journals. This suggests that peer review is an important if not the most important feature of publishing in science. However, one may ask whether the development of new modes of communication and networking which have followed the tremendous rise of the internet since the end of the nineties should have also enabled publishers and researchers to modify this workflow when evaluating scientific work.

“Peer review is an important if not the most important feature of publishing in science.”

Are there any peer review alternatives today?

Of course there are and it would have been surprising if there had been no initiatives to modify the incumbent system of peer review. In the last ten years there have been several examples of publishers experimenting with new concepts in that process. One first step was to question whether anonymity is a necessary feature of peer review. We live in a much more open world today where people regularly share information that used to be limited to a single recipient of a letter with huge communities via Twitter, Facebook and other networks. An attempt to open up the review process by making the names of reviewers visible together with the accepted article was made by the Journal of Medical Internet Research beginning in 1999. This process is called open peer reviewing. The British Medical Journal began a similar process also in 1999, but decided to disclose the identity of the reviewers to the author only, and not to the public. Founded in 2007 the Frontiers journals introduced an interactive peer review process where all reviewers decide together in an internet forum on whether a paper is accepted or rejected and also publish the names of the reviewers along with a statement. Recently launched, F1000 Research publishes research papers with the disclosed identity of their, however still traditionally nominated reviewers, as well as the reviewer report. Other journals started to mix both traditional and public (not necessarily open) reviewing in different graduations, such as the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, launched in 1996, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics since 2001, or Nature in 2006. However, Nature decided to stop that experiment soon after its launch because only 5% of authors actively agreed to support it. Nevertheless, the Nature experiment showed that more than half of all those articles which were made open for public comment received feedback from readers, which is an important finding when asking ourselves if a public, open peer review would work. All these alternatives have been mostly limited to a few, individual journals or publishing platforms without generating a significant impact on the scholarly community, although that may be about to change as the number of experiments increase.

“Alternatives have been limited to a few, individual journals or publishing platforms without generating a significant impact.”

Looking forward: the 4PR process

We have seen that there are some examples which represent a wide range of slightly different approaches to the concept of open peer review which aim at a higher level of transparency in the current system but are limited to a specific scientific (sub-)discipline or combine traditional and open peer review, either public or partially open. Nearly all of these efforts address the question of anonymity, but take as a given the premise that quality control depends on a workflow developed decades ago where an editor chooses “peers” for a given paper and then makes a decision on whether it should be published. In this area there have been fewer experiments. One straightforward idea and one that I am currently experimenting with on the platform ScienceOpen would be to openly post an article which has been submitted to a journal and wait for comments of potential readers instead of assigning reviewers by the journals’ editors. Readers’ feedback on a particular article would be openly accessible and the authors or any other reader could reply to these comments openly. This idea combines aspects which have been raised by authors and readers and are becoming more and more important in scholarly publishing: immediate and open access to a new scientific work; unique citeability of the current and past versions of an article by a DOI (digital object identifier); freedom of any researcher in that field to submit comments on that article; rigorous openness of all information provided in this process, as for example the names of commenters and reviewers. Of course such a new process which I call public post-publication peer reviewing (4PR) requires some elements to maintain the high scientific standard as for traditionally peer reviewed journals. Only those researcher should be enabled to comment on an article if they are working in the same area of research and have a certain level of expertise, for example by a defined number of peer-reviewed publications in that field. Those researchers could be authenticated for example by an ORCID registration. In addition there must be an alert option for any reader to identify those comments which seems to be inappropriate. This is necessary because in this process an editor will no longer nominate individual reviewers and occasionally filter their feedback before providing it to the author or making it public.

“Readers’ feedback on a particular article would be openly accessible and the authors or any other reader could reply to these comments openly.”

The result of such a 4PR process would be more transparency because both authors and readers would see the identity of the reviewers. This would reduce to a minimum the rare but obvious opportunity for misuse by competing reviewers. Moreover, not every expert in the field will know everything which may be necessary to competently evaluate the work of the author. The ability to identify the reviewer would help the reader to judge specific feedback he has given – or not given. And each reader should also be enabled to invite further reviewers, if he/she feels the paper has been inadequately reviewed, but is not an expert on the subject. In the current system, publishing editors and researchers are under high pressure with repeated requests for reviewers’ invitations. For some journals more than 70 percent of potential reviewers decline or do not answer such requests, which initiates another loop to find peer reviewers. It is obvious, however, that an expert in a specific field will eagerly track those new submissions by his peers which are of relevance for his or her current research. This is already currently done on a regular basis in those areas of research where most recent articles are openly available as preprints before submission to a journal for example in physics or computer sciences (arXiv). Then, it could be an easy task for that individual researcher to submit a short, general feedback, for example that he finds the article useful (or not), or to write a summary of his evaluation immediately after reading supported by an easy-to-handle web form which evaluates all relevant facts of a publications. An option for private communication between reader and reviewer would make a dialogue possible in those cases where a reviewer does not want to post comments publicly. In every case, the authors would benefit from an immediate reply of peers to their publications and also the potentially more specific feedback concerning particular aspects of their work with the idea that opening up the peer review process to more than two reviewers will provide more feedback in the long run. This constructive feedback could then result in a slightly modified or updated version of the same article which has been submitted first to the public. All versions of an article should be archived and identified with a DOI to link any citation unambiguously to the specific version of that article.

“The result of such a 4PR process would be more transparency.”

These are examples of some of the benefits for authors and reviewers, but there will also be improvements for the reader. More and more researchers currently complain that it is almost impossible to track all relevant new publications or preprints on a regular basis. With the exception of limiting themselves to a small selection of specific journals, there is almost no chance to predefine or select those papers which may contain some relevant information for the individual reader. Having established a 4PR process, the relevance of existing or new contributions will be perpetually influenced by the readers’ feedback: usage, full-text downloads, but now also the rating of reviewers and the number of comments to a specific publications. Those papers which have been heavily discussed and positively evaluated will rise to the top of the list of works in a certain scientific area, those which will have received negative comments or no feedback at all will continue to sink to the bottom of the list. Interestingly, this process is strongly dynamic and a publications which was considered and rated as a rising star immediately after publication could lose this attribute after some while when readers discover new aspects which influence both the relevance and therefore the rating of that article – and vice versa. It is somehow a living list of documents which becomes frequently updated by new comments or new versions of an article. In this way it would be possible to address the quality control aspect of peer review with a completely new structure independent of gate-keeping editors and journals.

“The relevance of existing or new contributions will be influenced by the readers’ feedback.”

Next steps

The 4PR principle which I have described is easy and rigorous and makes no comprises in terms of scientific standards, while promoting transparency in the peer review process. Since it is based on networking tools which are commonly used in other forums, there are no longer technical limitations to establishing such a process. I expect this principle to successively displace the traditional mode of peer-review developed from the paper model in the next years. This is not at all because the traditional process was bad, but because it absolutely makes sense to make use of current modes of communication to exchange information between researchers more efficiently and transparently. As a first live experiment which will adopt this concept I am involved in the new scholarly communication platform ScienceOpen and will track the development of this idea closely.

“It absolutely makes sense to make use of current modes of communication to exchange information between researchers more efficiently and transparently.”

Alexander Grossmann

The role of publishers – past, present and future

In my recent post I  tried to summarize where we are coming from when talking about academic publishing today. However, the far more exciting question will be the following: where we are going and which challenges we will have to encounter in the next few years.

How are academic publishers affected by the requirements of electronic publishing?

In the past, publishers used to be the only link between authors and readers. They managed the selection of content and did the technical editing and typesetting. Journal editors in publishing houses together with the Editor-in-Chief also organized the peer review, which has been the standard of quality assurance for scientific publishing for many decades. Ultimately, publishers were responsible for the distribution and marketing of their journals in order to make the content accessible worldwide. In the era of printed journals the duties of a publishing house were finished at that point – until the next volume of a journal appeared. Beginning in the late 1990’s, however, a new, wide-ranging task of publishing began: making the journal content available in electronic form and thus making all journal data accessible and usable – always and everywhere. Not only at the present moment but also in the following years and decades.

Moreover the software to run the databases had to be continuously updated and migrated to the most recent server technology to efficiently communicate with libraries and other outlets. This became the most important new responsibility publishers had to face. With these changes, publishers began to spend a large amount of their annual budget for electronic services and requirements – costs which were of course translated into rising subscription prices. In order to balance these changes, traditional publishing services, such as copy-editing and language polishing, were increasingly cut or outsourced. Although the publishing houses were investing in systems for electronic distribution, the internet environment more and more opened up the door for direct communication between authors and readers. Meanwhile, readers can leave comments on nearly every website, contact authors for a pdf in case they hit a paywall, give ratings on Amazon, or even share their articles via Twitter. As publishing services are more and more reduced and the electronic communication is increasingly in the hands of researchers, will the publisher as link between author and reader become obsolete?

“As publishing services are more and more reduced and the electronic communication is increasingly in the hands of researchers, will the publisher as link between author and reader become obsolete?”

How has technology changed publishers’ offer to authors over the last 10 to 15 years?

The availability of technical resources, IT know-how and storage space has drastically increased over the last fifteen years. Anyone can now host a database with gigabytes of storage space and make it available to the public – a challenge even for IT specialists and data storage centers some 10 years ago. The same is true, merely earlier, for the technical preparation of manuscripts, whether for the printed or the electronic version of an article. In the 1980’s only a handful of TeX enthusiasts were able to prepare their manuscripts camera-ready for printing. Meanwhile, this has become a daily routine for many researchers. The same holds true for the linking and tagging of articles, which once had to be left to highly specialized professionals in the publishing houses. Now, this can be done with standard word processing software. On the one hand, publishers rely on these same technological advances to save time and money in their workflows, but on the other hand can no longer offer it as a unique service. Since traditional publishing services such as copy-editing are more intensive in terms of human capital and cannot be further automatized and rationalized, publishers have not made them the central offer to their authors. Thus, the scope and range of professional publishing services has essentially remained the same or has even been reduced. On top of that, technology has put many of these tool in authors own hands. That is the key change that publishers have had to face in the last ten years. And this may be also the reason why fewer and fewer scientists regard publishing houses as their partners today. However, all of this does not seem to have arrived with all its consequences at management levels yet, especially in terms of new business models.

“… fewer and fewer scientists regard publishing houses as their partners today.”

What will the role of publishers be in the future?

Certainly publishers will impact these developments. Simply by means of their great resources of personnel, technology – and content. I believe, however, that they’ll have to embrace this process more actively and put themselves at the forefront of research and development. Especially, if they want to maintain their former relevance as the major link between author and reader.

Over many decades, if not centuries, the publishers have had a monopoly on the acquisition of manuscripts, on typesetting and editing, and finally on the dissemination of scientific literature. This monopoly, however, is rapidly disappearing and the structural change in publishing which started in the late nineties has contributed significantly to its decline. Today, every only moderately talented computer science student can build a web platform within a few hours, on which content can be made publicly accessible. Hosting and long-term preservation of scientific articles, figures, source data, and supplementary material can be easily done on repositories. Publishing services can now be performed and organized by scientists themselves. Finally there remain less and less reasons why authors should ultimately publish their work in traditional publishers’ journals.

Those publishers who recognize this restructuring process or even are actively advancing that process themselves, will have a fair chance to survive in the long term. This is true in particular in the area of scientific publishing, where authors are technically adept and demanding customers under extreme time pressure and often involved in high-stakes fields. It is therefore not surprising that some major academic publishers have taken steps in this direction, as for example Elsevier which purchased the start-up venture Mendeley a few months ago. Springer had already invested in the area of Open Access when BioMed Central was acquired several years ago. The Nature Publishing Group acquired a share of Frontiers and De Gruyter bought the Open Access publisher Versita. Despite the high investments in these acquisitions, those activities only remain small steps in limited segments of publishing. Nevertheless, they are important in order to stay in touch with developments whose scope and reach are only now beginning to become apparent.

“Those publishers who recognize this restructuring process (…), will have a fair chance to survive in the long term.”

Experiments in scientific publishing

As a newly appointed professor of publishing management, I will be preparing students for a future in publishing. This is a big responsibility and raises questions both institutional and personal. Where is publishing headed? Where do I stand on that trajectory? I set about asking myself some of those questions.

Alexander, you spent many years working as a scientist, what was your experience with scientific literature?

When I was working the early nineties at the research center Jülich during my PhD as a scientist, obtaining published scientific information was just beginning to become digitized, but still followed the patterns of decades of good and best practice. Though I no longer had to use card catalogues, to follow developments in my research area I regularly went to the library because relevant information was published in the newly released editions of the major scientific journals. The interesting publications I then copied on the spot, which took quite a long time per article. Searching in catalogues was almost a secret of its own because you had to perform cryptic and complicated searches on a computer workstation or browse through microfiches. Alternatively, one could ask somebody at the library to perform the search and copy for you but this took a couple of days or weeks depending on the complexity of your query. One can hardly imagine that today, if you have not experienced it yourself. I would love to see a survey of how often research physicists today still actually go to the library. But the thrill of discovering something new, unexpected and relevant, when browsing through the scientific literature, information that could bring one to the next level of a research project – that has certainly stayed the same.

“I would love to see a survey of how often research physicists today still actually go to the library.”

When did the internet gain a greater importance for the daily work of scientists?

The mid-nineties was quite an upheaval. Suddenly we communicated less by phone and started to use email when talking to research colleagues in other locations. You could also then research library catalogs online or via the intranet of the institution, rather than looking articles up in cumbersome printed directories or indexes. That was experienced as a significant gain in comfort. In the second half of that decade more and more universities or research institutions offered the recent issues of the most important journals online, so that you could view interesting articles directly at your computer screen and print it if required. From then on, in principal, the level of comfort in browsing, searching, and accessing was comparable to the situation today. Of course, there were large differences in the electronic supply, depending on the institution and also depending on the subject area. In the humanities, this development started many years later and has still not achieved the same level as in the natural sciences.

“…more and more universities or research institutions offered the recent issues of the most important journals online, so that you could view interesting articles directly at your computer screen and print it if required.”

Can one speak of a systematic transformation in the way scientific literature is searched for and accessed?

Yes, in the area of STM (Scientific/Technical/Medical) literature I experienced it as a dramatic change within a few years, both in research as well as in the reception of the publications.

What else has changed in the process?

Interestingly, little: besides being translated into a digital environment, the entire path from manuscript to publication, the editorial and technical workflow, as well as the publication itself has not been so thoroughly affected by this change process, and why? It is of course oversimplified, but one could say that a publication which had been disseminated in printed form as part of a scientific journal issue was now available in an electronic format. No more and no less. The main advantage of that change of “packaging” was a reduction in the time period between release of the journal issue and access for the reader. That time period consisted of the span in which a new journal issue was published, shipped by (surface) mail to a library at the other end of the world which cataloged it and made it physically available on the library shelf, until finally a scientist could read the article. This took weeks, if it not several months, as one can easily imagine.

“…one could say that a publication which had been disseminated in printed form as part of a scientific journal issue was now available in an electronic format. No more and no less.”

Electronic publishing has thus accelerated the availability of scientific information?

Yes and no. That important potential time savings which could have arisen from online publishing was not immediately implemented by most scholarly publishers in the early years. Individual articles were still collected for a physical issue of the journal and then only electronically published when the printed volume had been released. Surprisingly, both the publishers and editors of their journals clung to this old-fashioned structure for many years. However, more and more publishers recognized in the years after the turn of the millennium that it made sense to publish individual articles online immediately after completion and release. The electronically published articles were unpaginated and the pagination was done after the compilation of the full issue. Publishers who recognized a market advantage then introduced fancy names for this „online first,” “ahead of print”, or “early view”. Nevertheless, many others have kept traditional modes of issue-based publishing as it had been over decades, in particular in the humanities, social sciences, or law, despite the fact that there are few reasons why one should not publish a scientific article immediately.

“Individual articles were still collected for a physical issue of the journal and then only electronically published when the printed volume had been released.”

Was the long period until the publication of scientific paper the reason for the emergence of preprint servers?

The publication of manuscripts often takes weeks, months or even years from the time of initial submission. While the technical preparation, typesetting, copyediting and language polishing of a manuscript will usually not exceed four to six weeks, peer-reviewing often requires several months in addition to the technical handling of an article because manuscripts must undergo extensive reviewer critique in a peer-reviewed journal. The demand for a quick exchange of current research results within a group of peers or the scientific community has led researchers to distribute in advance those versions of their manuscripts known as preprints. Preprints are manuscripts that have yet to undergo the peer reviewing process. Particularly in physics this has become a standard procedure since the early nineties with the arXiv preprint server. Again it has been the rise of the internet which has enabled researchers to increasingly distribute their preprints electronically rather than as paper copies to speed up the flow of information.

“The demand for a quick exchange of current research results within a group of peers or the scientific community has led researchers to distribute in advance those versions of their manuscripts known as preprints.”

Publishers have only cautiously explored the capabilities of the new medium?

I moved from research into the publishing industry in the early 2000s and have thus followed this development carefully. At the beginning there were lively discussions in our publishing teams about whether one should ever offer an electronic version of the content or not.

That sounds surprising, what were the reasons for the reluctance?

Many colleagues believed that electronic publishing would be a threat for their sales and margins in journals publishing. They were simply afraid that publishers would lose money – a fear not completely unfounded. In the early days of the internet there were some spectacular examples where publishers ventured too much, such as in the newspaper or encyclopedia branches, and completely lost their customer base, allowing for the rise of alternatives such as Wikipedia. At the beginning of the digital age most publishers had no experience with the use of electronic content. In particular, they had no idea about what business models could combine both print and electronic sales of their journals. At the same time there were rumors that libraries or institutions might cancel journal subscriptions because in principle any individual user at an institution now had access to an electronic version of the journal content. To bypass this threat, publishers introduced concepts to technically restrict the access only to a single user at a time. This limitation, however, drastically reduced the key advantage of an electronic availability of scholarly literature. Since then the libraries have succeeded to demanding unrestricted access for all its users at the same time and to the same content.

“At the beginning of the digital age most publishers had no experience with the use of electronic content. In particular, they had no idea about what business models could combine both print and electronic sales of their journals.”

When looking back how do you evaluate that attitude of publishing industry?

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Publishers seemed to act often reluctantly, almost fearfully, when it came to adaptations or exploration of new possibilities in electronic publishing. While working in the publishing industry at various publishers, I heard more than once the statement “let the other publishers test the waters”, before deciding to make an innovation or investment in electronic media. Such short-sightedness and sometimes narrow-mindedness has occasionally really surprised me, because the industry was then economically very well-positioned. From the perspective of corporate strategy it seems smart to invest in new technologies or business models when times are good, rather than reacting later to market pressures.

“Publishers seemed to act often reluctantly, almost fearfully, when it came to adaptations or exploration of new possibilities in electronic publishing.”

How far have we come from today’s perspective?

In the natural sciences and medicine we now have almost full coverage of scientific information in an electronic format. In those areas new subject area content is almost exclusively browsed and accessed electronically. The situation in the humanities is also starting to change.

Has the vision of a paperless office arrived on researchers’ desk?

No, I would not go that far. On the contrary, I often discovered during my visits of scientists that their desks are piled high with publications they have printed from the internet. When asked, they commonly said that it is their material for reading of the current week which they plan to work through in the evening or when travelling next time. Incidentally, I also prefer reading pages of longer texts on paper rather than on a screen. However, the use of e-readers is on the rise and it may well be the case that the next generation of professors will work completely differently.

“I often discovered during my visits of scientists that their desks are piled high with publications they have printed from the internet.”

Are researchers going to change their reading habits with the appearance of mobile reading devices such as e-readers, smartphones or tablets?

I think it will take some time until you can read a scientific paper with tables, graphs and pictures on a small smartphone in such a way that you can work with it seriously. Nevertheless, using an e-reader or tablet PC rather than a smartphone is a different story. Here I expect to see more and more researchers using those devices in the near future. I myself see not only students, but also especially researchers who use these devices frequently to take important or new publications with them and then read it when an opportunity arises. I think many of us know that feeling of looking forward to a train or plane trip with no access to e-mail so that we can read in a concentrated way for a few hours. And that without piles of paper to print out and carry around.

“I expect to see more and more researchers using e-reader or tablet PCs in the near future. I myself see not only students, but also especially researchers who use these devices frequently to take important or new publications with them […]”

What is required for this trend to continue?

Publishers or any aggregator of scientific content will have to process all material in a media-neutral format. Then the content can be easily accessed on today’s and future mobile reading devices. A conversion into a PDF, however, is no longer adequate. Rather texts must be converted into XML and tagged. Then users can easily navigate through the publications, display the text without moving around and depending on the size of their screens and can view pictures in different resolutions. These are – once again in time – purely technical requirements that must be provided by those aggregators which will mediate scholarly content in the future. There are some excellent experiments out there such as the new  PubReaderTM developed by the NIH and I expect to see more to come.

“Publishers or any aggregator of scientific content will have to process all material in a media-neutral format. Then the content can be easily accessed on today’s and future mobile reading devices.”

//TO BE CONTINUED