|A new European-funded initiative is advocating an entirely new system of science publishing, in which scientists avoid the hassles of traditional peer review by taking a quietly radical step: post their results on their websites.
|Image: Wikimedia commons, Gflores
As the news release for LiquidPublication simply states: “Don’t print it; post it.” To disseminate the information, the program has a software platform that lets other scientists search for what’s been posted, leave comments, link related works, and gather papers and information into their own personalized online journals — all for free.
“I think it’s exactly what is needed — a paradigm shift,” said peer-review critic David Kaplan of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. “This is a different system that utilizes the unique characteristics of the web [to provide] a different way of looking at manuscripts [and] a different way of evaluating them.”
The downfalls of the current scientific publishing scheme are no secret, and while many journals are aiming to better it (see The Scientist’s feature in this month’s issue), their efforts are relatively minor alterations to what many consider a fundamentally flawed system. Now, information engineer Fabio Casati of the University of Trento in Italy and his collaborators are suggesting science publishing try something entirely new, taking full advantage of the rapidly evolving Web 2.0 technology.
They suggest making research — including formal manuscripts, datasets, presentation slides, and other presentations — available through the web without any sort of traditional peer-review process. That research would then be searchable and citable by the rest of the scientific community at no cost.
“In this way — by looking at what people do in terms of reading, sharing, or connecting scientific knowledge — we can have a way of finding out which scientific resources are considered good and interesting by the scientific community,” Casati said.
Specifically, he and his team envision a new age of scientific journals, created by the users themselves — the scientists. “I [could] have my own journal, which I maintain on peer review, for example,” he explains. “[When I find an interesting paper], I drag and drop the pdf file [in] the journal” using the platform provided by LiquidPublication, which recognizes the file, obtains the url, and retrieves the metadata, etc. “I do this because I want to keep track of it for myself [and alert] all my team, [but] by doing this, we also share [our thoughts on the research] with the world.”
The LiquidPublication site, which already has a prototype up and running, will then collect basic metrics (for example, the number of people who include a contribution in their journals, the number of subscribers to a particular journal, or the number of times someone links to a scientific resource) by which users can judge the reputability of different pieces of knowledge — or the merit of its authors. “In essence, what we want to do is to allow scientists to easily build this web of scientific resources,” Casati said.
“I think it’s really interesting, and I think it could make a lot of difference,” said Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, who has written extensively about peer review. It takes advantage of “the whole idea of the invisible college,” he said.
Of course, this system is not without its drawbacks, most agree. “My fear is that people would put out garbage,” Kaplan said. “Who’s going to wade through all of that?” The solution to this, however, would be to employ gatekeepers of the content, “and the more you gatekeep, the more you’re back to the system we have now.”
But under the system Casati has in mind, gatekeepers wouldn’t be necessary. The research, he said, will be vetted by those who understand it best — those scientists working on closely related subjects. For instance, scientists can follow “how frequently reputable people, who are respected in science, put [them] into their journals.”
In his opinion, there’s no reason such a system can’t coexist with many of today’s journals, with or without peer review. “We’re not saying you should use this system religiously and not use peer review,” he said. “You can have a journal with this model, but still have peer review behind it.”
Indeed, the project has attracted interest from the scientific branch of Springer Publishing. While the publisher is currently not contributing any funds to the project, “Springer was brought in because of their knowledge in the field,” Casati said. “I think it’s clear to them that the world is going to change. In the past, [journals have been] used to provide the value of printing and distinction, [but in the future] it will be radically different.” Springer was not able to comment by deadline.
In addition to making scientific publishing much more efficient, Casati and his collaborators hope that LiquidPublication will encourage quality over quantity, and “discourage the attitude of trying to publish as many papers as possible as opposed to trying to do as much research as possible,” he said. The way the platform will link papers, for example, will be able to show when one publication is merely an incremental addition to a previous one. The world “will know whether your 14 papers you’ve published are minor variations or are actually 14 new and different scientific contributions.”
Unfortunately, Smith said, the scientific community has so long been stuck in its ways, that such a dramatic change will be difficult for many to accept. “I would be surprised if this is the sort of the breech of the dikes that really causes things to change in a real way,” Smith said, “but let’s hope it might be.”
The LiquidPublication project is funded by the FET-Open strand of the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme for research.