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Scholarly Publishing Model Needs an Update

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Credit: IBM Research - Zurich

Science demands an overhaul of the well-established system of peer-review in scholarly communication. The current system is outmoded, inefficient, and slow. The only question is how!

The speed of scientific discovery is accelerating, especially in the field of computing, with an increasing number of ways to communicate results to global research communities, and to facilitate the exchange of ideas, critiques, and information through blogs, social networks, virtual meetings, and other electronic media in real time. These changes represent an enormous opportunity for scientific publishing.

Technology facilitated this acceleration, but technology alone will not provide the solution. Scientific discovery will not reduce or replace the need for good judgment, expertise, and quality should always take priority over speed. At times, these values are at odds with the speed of digital communication, and this is never more apparent than when spending a few spare moments reading general Twitter or Facebook posts in response to serious scholarly articles published online in established publications. The combination of social networking and scientific peer review is not a de facto home run.

Nevertheless, if implemented well, technology can help to serve as a springboard for positive changes to the scholarly communication process. But it's not clear how to measure the import or impact of these activities, or their ability to truly change the current system, which is still heavily dependent on a long established system of "publish or perish" in scholarly journals or conference proceedings. Many of the ways in which we communicate scientific discovery or conduct discourse are simply not counted in professional assessments, and this provides a negative incentive to changing the present system. The existing model of peer review is part of the problem, but the social system of rewarding only the long-established scholarly media (print/online journals and conference proceedings in the case of computer science) is also a major hurdle. The publication media that are accepted by the academic establishment happen to be those that take the most time to reach their intended readership. It is also worth noting that these media have stood the test of time. Science is not solely about communication; it is also about maintaining a historical record, so that future generations of scientists can learn and build on the work of the past. Whether new forms of scholarly communication pass this second test is far from certain.

A common misconception about the "dead tree" model of scholarly communication is that it is antithetical to speed. This is only true to a certain extent, but almost certainly not to the extent that most believe.

Scott Delman, ACM's Director of Group Publishing, commented that "The current system of peer review is the single largest bottleneck in the scholarly publication process, but this does not mean the established system can simply be thrown out in favor of new models just because new technology enables dramatic improvements in speed." Establishing a new model for scholarly communication will involve experimentation, trial and error, and most likely evolution instead of revolution. Proclamations of the death of scholarly publishers and scholarly publishing as a result of the rise of the Internet are no longer taken seriously by those working in the publishing industry. What we have seen is a slow but steady evolution of print to online publication and distribution models instead of an overnight upheaval.

Delman adds, "I believe strongly that there is a need for a new model," but then goes on to refute the notion that digital-only publishing—and the elimination of print—would quicken the publication of scholarly articles. "The most substantial component in the time delay related to the publication of articles in scholarly journals is the peer-review process," and a digital-only model won't change that, he says. Nor will it reduce article backlogs or remove page limitations. "Eliminating print will not have the dramatic impact that most assume will occur if print publications go away," he says. Importantly, ACM readers and subscribers "look for high-quality content delivered in multiple formats, and they still want print."

Adding to the complexity of the challenge is the fact that while science is global, scientific publication models are often socially or geographically influenced, so there is no single solution that can be identified to improve the speed or efficiency of scholarly communication. Ed Chi, of the Palo Alto Research Center, described some of the difficulties of modernizing peer-review publishing in the Blog@CACM at ( "In many non-U.S. research evaluations, only the ISI Science Citation Index actually counts for publication. Already this doesn't fit with many real-world metrics for reputation," Chi said via email. Some well-known ACM conference publications are excluded from the SCI (, "even when their real-world reputation is much higher than other 'dead-tree' journals." Technology may provide opportunities to facilitate and accelerate the discourse, but there is no guarantee the academic establishment around the world will move as quickly in accepting new media and ways of communicating.

Paperless publishing will happen gradually, but "only if there are ways to manage the publication process," Chi says. "Open source journal publication management systems will enable journals to go somewhat independent of traditional paper publishers, but we will also need national scientific institutions to establish digital archives." Other challenges he notes include handling an increased number of submissions and managing potentially larger editorial boards.

As an organization with the stated mission to advance computing as a science and profession, ACM could "lead the charge" in experimenting with new digital publishing models for computing scholarship, says Chi. "This might include creating usable software, digital libraries, or archival standards." A particularly important area of research would examine how to make socially derived metrics a part of reputation systems, so that the number of downloads, online mentions, citations, and blog discussions can be measured for influence. Then, according to Chi, ACM "should work with national libraries to actively change the publication models of other professions and fields." This will not be a revolution. ACM can help to drive the change in a positive way for the scientific community.

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Cassidy Alan

The on-line and Internet process will work itself out. The "old-line authorities" will find a way to transfer peer review to the Web but the best peer review is to let everybody have a look at it that can do so.

Peer review evolved to deliberately bottleneck the process because the real estate in the pages of journals was limited, publication was the avenue to reputation, and there are too many submissions. The Web eliminates that razon d'etre for the current model of peer review.

So while keeping out the crazy stuff, and maybe catching errors in submissions, peer review has worked as a de facto firewall against maverick ideas that have merit like Joao Magueijo's "VSL" (Variable Speed of Light) theory, explained for the layman in the book "Faster Than the Speed of Light". It almost prevented publication.

Climategate also exposed another ugly underbelly of peer review: it hides conflicts of interest behind cloaks of anonymity. We see actors with massive emotional investment and large monetary grants at stake in personal communications confessed their own role in suppressing dissent.

But never fear. Post your idea on-line, and let 10,000 "peer reviewers" get an open look at it.

Witness the speed with which peer review handled the recent proposed resolution to the "P versus NP problem". In retrospect, putting it through the traditional peer review process, even a faster on-line version, would have been almost criminal in its delay. Science and technology was served well.

The traditional process has also surely suppressed efforts by competent amateurs to contribute to the process. Some do get respect due to established reputations, gotten the hard way, like Forest Mims, who bested NASA with home-built equipment.

There's nothing to fear here as the N-NP incident shows, and everything to gain. There is Internet geography sprouting up everywhere in which groups of scientists and technologists with dissenting views that peer review in "respected journals" would reject without hesitation, sometimes before getting to reviewers.

And worse, papers have been rejected by some such journals based on unrelated views prohibited by "established science orthodoxy", only to see others later get the credit for those ideas.

There will evolve forums with managed contribution that will emulate an Internet-speed version of the current model, with enhancements provided by the medium, and this will help sort out the fringe flak from the genuine article.

The net effect is an exponentially better model, high-octane acceleration in the process for good ideas, and benefits to all of us, as long as the political authorities in the legal and the academic worlds can be restrained from enforcing censorship on dissent in this expanded world.

David Roman

Cassidy Alan rightly points to the recent swift assessment of Vinay Deolalikar's proposed P-NP solution as a positive demonstration of web-based peer review, and I share his expectation that better online processes are forthcoming. Though I think they will take years and years to evolve, independent of how flawed the 'dead-tree' model of peer-review print publications may be. The print model is well-established and well-understood, and it successfully addresses a problem that Cassidy recognizes as a goal for online processes: to "help sort out the fringe flak from the genuine article," and to do so without creating obstacles, squelching new ideas, or resorting to censorship. To its advantage, the online world has a head start on avoiding these pitfalls.

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