About a year ago on this site, I discussed a model for addressing some of the major problems in scientific publishing. The main idea was simple: replace the current system of pre-publication peer review with one in which all research is immediately published and only afterwards sorted according to quality and community interest. This post generated a lot of discussion; in conversations since, however, I’ve learned that almost anyone who has thought seriously about the role of the internet in scientific communication has had similar ideas.
The question, then, is not whether dramatic improvements in the system of scientfic publication are possible, but rather how to implement them. There is now a growing trickle of papers posted to pre-print servers ahead of formal publication. I am hopeful that this is bringing us close to dispensing with one of the major obstacles in the path towards a modern system of scientific communication: the lack of rapid and wide distribution of results.*
Solving the distribution problem
It’s worth restating why one might say that the system of pre-publication peer review has a “distribution problem”. What I’m referring to with this is the severe lag time between the time a scientific result is prepared for publication and the time that it is distributed. In my experience, this lag time is on average about six months, with a non-trivial long tail of papers that take much longer. To put this in context with some back-of-the-envelope calculations, let’s define a unit of time called a Scientific Career (SC), and let 1 SC equal 30 years. If there are 50,000 papers published in biology per year (this number is somewhat random, but probably within an order of magnitude given that about 500k papers are added to PubMed per year), and on average each paper takes 6 months to go through the review process, then each year ~800 Scientific Careers are spent bringing papers from initial submission to formal publication. It would be a laughable to argue that 800 SCs of research or value have been added to the papers during this process (let’s be honest–for most of that time the papers are just sitting on someone’s desk waiting to be read). The system of pre-publication peer review thus dramatically retards scientific progress.
The solution to this problem relies on a simple observation–in my field, I am completely indifferent to whether a paper has been “peer-reviewed” for the basic reason that I consider myself a “peer”. I do not think it extremely hubristic to say that I am reasonably capable of evaluating whether a paper in my field is worth reading, and then if so, of judging its merits. The opinions of other people in the field are of course important, but in no way does the fact that two or three nameless people thought a paper worth publishing influence my opinion of it. This immediately suggests a system in which papers are posted online as soon as the authors think they are ready (on so-called pre-print servers). This system is the default in many physics, math, and economics communities, among others, and as far as I can tell it’s been quite successful.
In genetics, a handful of people, most notably Graham Coop, Titus Brown, and Leonid Kruglyak, have been making the case for posting research to pre-print servers (mostly arXiv) ahead of formal publication. A recent news piece in Nature even went so far as to call this a “trend” in the field. Should this develop into a real trend and become standard, one can imagine a system in which rapid dissemination of pre-prints occurrs alongside the current peer-review system for judging the importance and technical quality of papers. Most journals I’m familiar with seem amenable to this sort of approach (with the frankly bizarre exception of Genome Research), and it would be a dramatic improvement over the status quo. There is no reasonable objection to this: if you think the current system of pre-publication peer review is just grand, surely the same system with the added feature that you get to see all the work in your field ahead of formal publication and judge it for yourself (if you so desire) is even better.
Of course, the problem of rapid dissemination of results is only one of the issues with the current system of peer review. Most importantly, for pre-prints not directly in my area of expertise, I have only a limited ability to evalutate their quality, nor do I completely trust three nameless reviewers to evaluate their quality for me. There are a number of potential solutions here, some of which were discussed in my previous post. But in terms of a first step, the hopefully rapid adoption of pre-print servers in genetics can only be a good thing.
*UPDATE 8/18/12 Slight changes to language for clarity