Sunday, May 26, 2013

Timely and accessible publication of research - is it too much to ask?

Recently, I was made aware of some the questionable tactics employed by the OMICS group, an open access publisher of over 200 journals which uses an 'author-pays' model. Traditional print journals rely on funding from subscriptions from individuals and institutions to support their publishing of scientific literature; publishing companies such as OMICS rely on authors' payments to publish their work. They claim to publish content within 21 days (as opposed to 6 months to 1 year, like most print journals).

The article which discusses this in much more detail is available to you if you have access to The Chronicle of Higher Education through your institution or professional association, or if you would like to subscribe to the journal for one ($76.00) or two ($132.00) years:

Stratford M (2012). 'Predadotry' Online Journals Lure Scholars who are Eager to Publish. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/9/2012 58(27): A1-A8. 

The article does raise some serious concerns about some open access publishing companies, and while I fully  support the publishing of scientific content in reputable, honestly peer-reviewed journals, there are some serious drawbacks to which I can understand as a young, budding researcher.

Step back for a second and ask yourself why these journals exist.

1) The publish or perish model of academic/scientific success does promote the advancement of science through competition; however, as with all competition, there are those who will look to 'cheat' to get ahead. 50 years ago, in the journal Science, Bernard Forscher from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, published a story entitled Chaos in the Brickyard. This story describes the consequences of a publish or perish model of success in academia - with peer-reviewed publication as the currency of academia (the more you publish, the 'richer' you are), the emergence of author-pays model of publication should come as no surprise. By placing such an emphasis on competition, we have enabled the creation of the many bricks, not to mention brick-making factories.

2) The timeliness of scientific publication is of utmost importance, especially in my field of research (bio-medical sciences and population health). New research functions to inform clinicians and policy makers whose primary goal is to improve the health of millions of people. The amount of time required to publish in traditional journals can be down-right disappointing - I personally find it difficult reading 'new' papers with primary analyses, published say last week, where the data was collected anywhere from 1-3 years ago. In a field that is growing and expanding more rapidly than ever, this is unacceptable. I can empathize with scientists who are enticed by the quick turn around time of open access online journals, especially when operating in the publish or perish model.

3) Access - as I mentioned above, you will not be able to access the article that I am referring to without an individual or institutional subscription - frustrating, isn't it? The goal of scientific research should be to advance scientific knowledge and understanding, and while for the most part this is true, historically this did not refer solely to a select few in society with the right connections or available finances. The owner of OMICS group,
Mr. Srinu Babu Gedela started his open-access publishing company because he had difficulty getting access to academic literature when he was a Ph.D. student at Andhra University in India (Stratford, 2012).

If this timely and accessible method of publishing promotes the dilution of scientific integrity, then we are to blame. If this new world of open access, online publishing is the monster that it is often made out to be, then we are the ones who have created it. We have no one to blame but ourselves for creating an academic competition, timeliness and accessibility void - in a free market society, the void will always be filled.

Researchers absolutely need to be made aware of the publishing tactics and strategies, unethical or otherwise, of many of the new online journals - and I would applaud Mr. Stratford for bravely doing so. However, instead of trying to police journals and point fingers, I would suggest that we (the scientific community as whole) need to learn a few lessons from this. The reputable, peer-reviewed journals in which most researchers desire to publish should aim to become more timely and accessible in their publishing of scientific content. All the while, we as researchers should begin to move away from the publish or perish model of academic success, and towards one which values the impact and originality of publications, the quality of peer review, and the building of edifices instead of bricks.

Please feel free to discuss in the comments box- this is science, after all!


  1. Excellent analysis, valid argument ..... hopefully a solution can soon be found and implemented for the specific benefit of the upcoming scientific community, in particular, and ultimately the general population.

  2. I had a brother with a "PHD" that chose to give up University Teaching because of the "Publish or Perish" principle... fortunately he and his Teacher wife were both able to do commendable work by becoming elementary teachers for "special needs" children. They both enjoyed many fruitful years of productive and self satisfying careers... the children they helped and their parents were most grateful..

  3. There are some promising solutions:

    1) The impact factor of journals (essentially based on the number of citations of published articles) is useful, as researchers aim to publish in high-end, reputable journals with high impact factors. Has the ability to (although may not always) speak to the quality of published work. Impact factors cannot be compared across fields, as practices in citing referenced works may vary (ie/ in mathematics it may take 50 years for a paper to received the deserved citations).

    2) Some open access articles are getting their own 'impact factor'. This means that even if the journal is not very well known, or not cited frequently, the individual article can have it's own evaluation of impact.

    3) Some journals are now allowing subscribers to evaluate articles after they have been published- much like a Google or Amazon book review. I personally think that this has some merit...if everyone with a blog like mine evaluated an article/week we would certainly get somewhere. I don't think that this will catch on without some sort of incentive, as 'letters to the editor' often serve the same purpose.

    As for changing the publish or perish seems like this would need to be a top-down approach. As junior researchers, if we want to succeed, we have to the play the game. It's those who make the 'rules', or place value on different forms success (ie/ senior scientists, journal editors, professional associations) that would need to change them.

  4. Interesting post, Mike!

    What I'd like to see is an iTunes model of publishing -- $0.99 per article with profit sharing between publishers, reviewers and authors.

    The price ($0.99/article) solves the accessibility problem.

    The quality control of peer-review is still very much possible in this model, but now there is incentive for editors and reviewers to get the article to print in a timely fashion because there is the possibility of reward (profit).

    But the possibility of reward is also a disincentive to "cheat" because publishers, reviewers and authors know that their product has to be of good quality in order for there to be any possibility of reward from consumers (e.g., scientists,professionals, students) and in order to justify the risk of wasting scarce resources (e.g., time and money).

    - Joel