Electronic Research!The Christian Science Monitor recently reported the timely and appropriate death of elitist hardcopy scholarly journals — a welcome and deserved demise and here’s why:

For years, traditional “peer review” has come under fire. A jury of three experts, the peer reviewers, assess each article and recommend only those that they feel represent the most significant new work.

At many elite scientific journals, fewer than 10 percent of the articles submitted are accepted. Many of the rejected articles eventually travel down the “food chain” to be published in a plethora of less prestigious (and less noticed) specialty journals.

A year ago, the respected US journal Science was forced to retract two papers it had published about stem cells. The articles had been submitted by a South Korean team led by Hwang Woo-Suk.

Peer reviewers, as well as the editors, had failed to detect the fraud. In general, peer reviewers, themselves researchers pressed for time, don’t try to re-create experiments and rarely ask to see the raw data that supports a paper’s conclusions.

While peer review is expected to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s “slow, expensive, profligate of academic time, highly subjective, prone to bias, easily abused, poor at detecting gross defects, and almost useless for detecting fraud,” summed up one critic in BMJ, the British medical journal, in 1997.

There is no doubt the traditional “peer review” publication process is a biased and closed system and it thrives on the incestuous relationship between dominant intellectual personalities and not the research itself. I know many young researchers are forced to please their mysterious peer reviewers by osmosis and if they do not appropriately honor the existing research, their work is purposefully and resoundingly canned by the peer review process where the reviewers have all the power to close discussion and demolish the expression of daring ideas.

Many universities use a record of regular publication as a high water mark of excellence in their in their young faculty. If you want tenure, and if you want to thrive in your department, you are forced to play the peer review game. That is wrong. When young, brilliant, minds are stuck in the conclusions of the past, only the status quo is confirmed. Wild and imaginative science is always struck down by those in power who do not wish the current tenor of their own research challenged by new methods and processes.

Opening up the research publication process to everyone is what inspired me to create the Scientific Aesthetic Quarterly several years ago where the fine work of my Public Health students could be read by everyone and not just me or a selected peer review board before making publication to the all-seeing, all-knowing, unblinking, public eye. The mission of my life has been to open publication avenues — but many young scholars are so concerned about their financial future that they play along with peer review instead of stretching out into Quarterlies like Scientific Aesthetic to face a wider, and more voracious, audience:

But science’s hidebound traditions are changing. The Internet has opened up new forms of publishing in which anyone in the world can find and read a scientific paper. And papers themselves are becoming more interactive, leading readers to the underlying data, videos, and discussions that augment their value. With blogs and e-books providing easy means of self-publishing, some observers are speculating that scholarly journals and their controversial system of peer reviews may not be needed at all. …

Two new scientific publications, both available only online, may signal what’s ahead. The PLoS ONE ( plosone.org), a journal begun by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) last month, aims to put as many new scientific articles as possible on the Internet to be read by anyone, free of charge.

The Journal of Visualized Experiments, or JoVE ( myjove.com), is a kind of YouTube for researchers. It operates on the theory that a short video showing how an experiment is done is better than thousands of words that attempt to describe it. … In coming months, says Chris Surridge, the managing editor of PLoS ONE, readers also will be able to rate papers on their quality, such as how surprising or groundbreaking the results were – much in the way Netflix subscribers rate movies they rent using one- to five-star ratings. In this sense, PLoS ONE is moving toward a Web 2.0 model, which focuses on user-generated content strategies already used by websites such as Digg.com, Slashdot.org, or Amazon.com.

It was a great delight for me to help hone this new thinking on the web where a deep variety of minds are encouraged to question the findings of science and research — with their own science and research — and not just the privileged few stuck on a peer review board. Watching a scientist perform an experiment streamed in a real-time web video is how all research memes should be documented from this day forward because it makes the means of discovering science more vulnerable and more accessible to the general public. Isn’t that the sworn duty of moral science?

The very scientific process itself will come under greater scrutiny as common thoughts and minds are allowed to inquire and wonder about the results, analyses and findings. That is right. If you had the opportunity to buy a hardcopy article or an electronic one, which one would you choose and why?

Is traditional peer review important to you — or not — in making a decision to buy — or not? Would you pay the same amount of money for a paper journal that you would for an electronic-only version? If yes, why? If not, why not? Do you expect an eBook to be less expensive than its hardbound twin? If yes, why? If no, why not?

43 Comments

  1. There needs to be some review process, even if just to tell people with good ideas to rewrite things so they don’t get ignored because of bad writing. Oh, and to keep out the rather large amounts of biased rubbish that is pumped out.
    I think the main advantage of online journals is that they are so much cheaper. More access to all! You’re definitely right that more access & more openness is a good thing.

  2. Ben —
    Oh, I agree there needs to be a review process and I’m not arguing for its removal. I want the process expanded to thousands of people — with varying degrees of education and life experience — and let them all review it on the web instead of three people on paper.
    How much cheaper are online journals than their hardcopy counterpoints?

  3. Hi David,
    I will always prefer a soft copy while reading an article because of its longevity/accessibility.
    Peer review is not a deciding factor while buying if the article interests me.
    I am not sure about a 400 pages e book to read – I think it won’t be as cozy an experience as a hard cover one – then again, I am biased.

  4. Yes, I meant the electronic version.
    I remember reading a 56 pages article, it was okay…but I am not sure I would like to read anything more than that.

  5. Katha —
    Do you save the actual journal article as an electronic file?
    Or do you prefer to read it online only in your web browser?
    Do you ever print out articles from online?
    If so, how long is too long to print out on paper?
    Do you save the articles you print out forever or not?
    56 pages. That isn’t very long for a book!
    🙂
    I understand your position.
    Would you print out a 200 page eBook?
    Read it online only?
    Read it locally on your computer?

  6. David,
    I meant reading 56 pages online was not a very pleasant experience 😀
    I can read 1056 pages if that is a hardbound copy – I can do whatever I want with it… I can lie down, go out and sit in the sun – but that’s not possible with a laptop – I think. At least not the way I prefer.
    I save articles as electronic files but I don’t print them – too many papers!
    If something is available online I have to read that is 200 pages – I will print it.

  7. This is something I am not familiar with at all.
    I would venture to suggest that the difference between online e-books and hard copy should reflect the difference in manufacturing/labour costs.
    E-books seen to offer a great entry level opportunity fo authors though – several friends of mine have sucessfully gone that route – blog, E-book and then into print.
    “Papers” and documents I tend to read on line – but books will always remain special .

  8. Nicola!
    I agree the trend for publishers is to move away from trees and into the ether of digital publication. They can also become their own distributor via website and can publish corrections and updates instantly. That’s bad news — really bad news, though – if you’re a local bookstore or an online-only book reseller.
    Publishers can offer a higher royalty to the author if they go the eBook route, though — usually twice the going rate or so — but is there a danger of becoming irrelevant as 100 publishers publish 100 eBooks on the exact same topic?
    At least when you have to deal with trees and ink you can be tempered somewhat by the longer expensive view of the expansive publication process to determine need and the sophistication of your readership.
    Many publishing houses are requiring authors to be their own graphics designers so an entire book is handed in published and “ready to go” for eBook distribution. They cut out the editorial process and the graphic designers. The author is the creator, writer, designer and editorial portal.
    Errors and Oopsies can be changed online in real time without any delay so why pay someone to proofread when your reading public will do that job for free while paying you for the right to download?
    How much cheaper would you require an online eBook be than its hardcopy counterpoint?
    Would you purchase an online book with a “timebomb feature” that made it “disappear” after a certain length of time or number of “reads” if it were really much cheaper than a traditional book?

  9. I have yet to purchase an e-book.
    I like to support my local bookshop.
    I am also a bit like Katha in her reading habits – I cannot read an e-book in the bath, or in the garden or on the train or anywhere away from my computer.
    I cannot see the point of printing out a whole book – my printer wouldnt cope for a start.
    I cant see any circumstances under which I would buy an e-book – let alone one with a time bomb feature.

  10. Sorry to disappoint you David, but you tell me – is there any fun left if you can’t scribble on the side of the margin or dog-ear the book? 😀

  11. Ah!
    I love it when the proper press predicts me:

    Given the constant erosion of the printed press, do you see the New York Times still being printed in five years?
    “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing the Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care either,” he says.
    Sulzberger is focusing on how to best manage the transition from print to Internet.
    “The Internet is a wonderful place to be, and we’re leading there,” he points out.
    The Times, in fact, has doubled its online readership to 1.5 million a day to go along with its 1.1 million subscribers for the print edition.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/822775.html
    Get used to writing in the margins of your computer!

  12. That’s a good point!
    Also, you could print out a chapter to read on the train without lugging all 1,000 pages of the latest Potter book with you.
    The main advantages to eBooks are: Instant publication on important/imperative topics, easy error correction, low price, simple distribution, immediate purchase power, slimmer “storability” profile.

  13. ACK – the word instant!
    No visit to the shop ( no walking in fresh air) no communication and chat with nice man in shop – no cash transaction, no paper bag – no human interaction.
    No feel of it in your hands, no smell, no energy – amd something at the end of it other than another pile of computer papers.
    Something to had around and share, something for your children to pass on – something fixed rather than transient.

  14. Right, instant! eBooks are forever with you. You can index them on your own and file them away in places you cannot yet imagine. They are convenient and they free you up even more to smell and languish in the good life.
    Is a book an experience or just print on paper?

  15. I read the comment about the NYT going paperless one of these years. I wonder if most people read national papers via the internet these days?
    I get our local newspapers, but most of the time, I find it is easier to spot interesting stories by reading them online either via Yahoo News or at the actual website.

  16. Actual printed journals cost a lot of money, and unless you have access to a university library you might have issues accessing papers you need to see, so in theory having copies online should be a lot cheaper (just pay for access to one paper or whatever).
    I’m not sure letting a huge group of people review things is too good an idea. Look a Wikipedia, it works well for the most part but a few fanatics/idiots can ruin it quite easily. All you’d need is a few extreme religious people to decide to wreck a journal and suddenly everything with the term ‘evolution’ in it is rejected.
    And that’s just ignoring personal rivalries which wouldn’t go away anyway.

  17. Chris! There you are! We missed you yesterday!
    😀
    I read a lot of newspapers via the web. My old hometown newspapers are looking better over the last week or so with total revamps:
    http://www.omaha.com
    http://www.journalstar.com
    http://www.dailyneb.com
    http://www.dailynebraskan.com
    http://www.statepaper.com
    They used to look like something awful from 1996. They were hard to read.
    Books — and Google knows this — will only live eternally on the web. Can you imagine one day doing a book topic search on Google and getting all the printed returns, with citations, for something like “Treason and Terrorism in America” — it will make research faster and the effect of that is better papers with more analysis because the time more time is able to be spent on making human connections between books instead of just trying to find the books in order to quote them.

  18. Ben —
    You made a good point about Wikipedia being unmanageable in the way too many cooks can ruin a broth. There would need to be some sort of sifting method that would place the most cogent and on point reactions first and the chaff — while still included — would only appear as an addendum or something.

  19. I thought I might chime in on the e-book issue. I don’t think it should be a matter of either or. E-books have their place and their value, as do print book. I, too, love holding a book in my hand as I lay in a warm tub. But I also enjoy my handheld (eBookman) where I can hold it in one hand, hold my package in my other hand as I stand in line at the post office. I can turn the page with my thumb, where I could not hold a book and a package and turn the page.
    I have also found some some wonderful new authors in eBook that are not in traditional print. So please don’t feel like you have to pick sides, loyalty is admirable, but change is such an invigorating sensation. If you look online you can often find the older model handhelds that are a fraction of the cost and still work just fine!
    I encourage you to give it a try.