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Part 2: The growing dilemma with the biological/biomedical publication enterprise

July 27, 2016 | Nat'l Institutes of Health (NIH), Nat'l Science Foundation (NSF)

Is there a viable solution?

In a recent post, we discussed a recent publication by R.D. Vale (“Accelerating Scientific Publication in Biology”, P.N.A.S. 2015; 112, 13,439-13,446, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511912112) concerning the increased challenges associated with publication of new biological/biomedical research findings.  In this recent publication, Dr. Vale offers one approach to potentially addressing this important issue that, he argues, would provide a possible solution to the significant (and increasingly problematic) lag in time from submission to actual publication. This proposed approach is predicated upon the now well-accepted practice in the physics, mathematics and computer science disciplines of posting potentially publishable results online without being first subject to rigorous peer review-directed journal scrutiny. The depository for submission and internet publishing of such new scientific findings and discoveries is the arXiv website (pronounced Archive) which is operated by the Cornell library. Articles submitted are usually posted on this website within days of being submitted, which makes them immediately accessible to the relevant scientific community, prior to publication. Most, but apparently not all, posted articles in arXiv are subsequently submitted to peer review journals where they then undergo critical review for scientific rigor. Suggestions by reviewers that lead to modifications in the submitted article are then incorporated into the manuscript and described on the arXiv posting.

The advantages of such a system are multiple and include making new information almost immediately accessible. Scientific “purists” might argue that the lack of rigorous peer review would potentially allow the site to become infected with inferior science, thereby adversely affecting the relative influence of quality science postings. However, advocates of this system argue that the community actually serves as an effective system for monitoring good and bad science, and that the latter can adversely influence an individual scientist’s professional reputation. Moreover, and of critical importance, articles posted to arXiv are generally accepted by journals and funding agencies as a valid vehicle equivalent to a peer-reviewed citation, thus allowing authors to include such citations as “progress” in the scientific community where publications serve as important criteria (e.g., grant applications, promotion and tenure). Finally, it allows authors to immediately receive credit for new discoveries – equivalent to the purpose of publications first established by Henry Oldenberg back in the 17th century.

Dr. Vale further offers the suggestion that, while the relatively recent emergence of similar approaches to rapid publication have occurred for scientists in the biological and biomedical disciplines (e.g., BioRxiv, established by the non-profit Cold Spring Harbor Press several years ago) and for-profit organizations (e.g., PeerJ and F1000Research), these efforts are still in their relative infancy compared to what would be needed in order to adequately address the growing problem. In this respect, there are certainly valid arguments that could be presented as to why the success of this approach in the physics, mathematics and computer science disciplines might not be predictive of similar success in the biological and biomedical science communities. There are, however, a number of contrasting arguments supporting the conclusion that the potential benefits to biological and biomedical science far outweigh the likely problems that would need to be overcome. Ultimately the future success of such an approach will lie with the extent to which the biological and biomedical communities would be willing to overcome the frequently deeply ingrained traditional publication “habits” and buy into this new approach. In this latter respect, the jury is still out, but the “take-home” lesson remains the same: something needs to change in the biomedical publication arena – and soon.

It is particularly noteworthy, in this respect, that many biomedical journals have been working to decrease the time from receipt of a manuscript to ultimate publication, and many have been relatively successful at it. There are forces that are confounding these efforts, however. One of the factors resulting in substantial lags between submission and publication is attributable to what some authors refer to as “Impact Factor Mania”. In this hypercompetitive environment, authors often (unrealistically) pursue publication in journals that are “above the paygrade” based on the often undefinable “wow” factor and “broad” appeal that editors of such journals usually look for. Inevitably, such manuscripts are rejected. The persistent author then pursues another journal, which may also not be totally realistic, with another rejection, and so on. Thus, much of the reason for the lag may well be, at least in part, the number of rejections that such unrealistic authors receive before they finally find the “appropriate” venue for publication of their manuscript.

Further, this process inevitably imposes additional stresses for the already-overtaxed system of manuscript review, i.e., the manuscript has to be reviewed by multiple journals instead of by the journal to which it probably should have been submitted in the first place. Reviewers frequently become tired of receiving requests to review manuscripts, with many reviewers now refusing to contribute their time, particularly as journals have decreased the turnaround time for those reviews in an effort to speed up the publication process. Invariably, the quality of reviews goes down when reviewers say no. One seasoned editor of a respected biomedical journal has pointed out to us that: “I often have to go to my 4th, 5th and 6th, and in some cases lower, choices for reviewers, with the result that it takes more time to identify reviewers. Additionally, I have less confidence in the review and frequently have to read the manuscript carefully (with further delay due to demands on my time).” Finally, many reviewers are overwhelmed writing multiple grant proposals in their never-ending quest to keep their research funded, further complicating the task of finding reviewers. Without some change in the “system” the biomedical publication process will break under its own burdensome overload. The question at this point in time is, “What exactly will be the “straw” that breaks this camel’s back?