Academic publishing: the dinosaur in the room
Technological advances in the past 20 years – principally the internet – have changed our lives beyond what we could ever have imagined. Just think how easily we get information, the speed with which we can do that and the variety of sources from which it can be obtained. Tertiary education once exclusively delivered by dreary and lengthy lectures is now widely available online and is much more flexible than it once was. We are all much more used to wider choice, ease of availability and, generally, a more democratic information environment. So, why does the academic publishing industry lag so far behind in this revolution? Why hasn’t it evolved?
What? I hear you say! Surely the academic publishing industry has been at the forefront of exploiting the internet. To some extent that is true. They have, by moving operations from submission to publication online, by having smartphone apps where content can be read and by using social media to promote their authors and articles. But why does academic publishing – predominantly – perpetuate the standard submission – pre-publication – rejection/revision/acceptance model of the 5000-word structured manuscript? Why, with the clear preferences of people to have more information-rich, succinct and accessible information rather than the jargon-heavy ramblings of academics largely writing for each other, do they not see the danger signals or, more to the point, the opportunity? Sticking to the traditional model in the age of the internet is like having the most modern car production line available and continuing to manufacture Model T Fords.
What is the problem with the current situation?
The process is lengthy and, while it is designed to produce high-quality published work, it is no guarantee of quality or honesty, as the number of retracted manuscripts suggests. Producing lengthy manuscripts is time-consuming and the peer review process can last from a few weeks to over a year. The final product, usually a lengthy article, is then published and in many cases never read. Even if the article is read, few people read every section. Introductions and discussions are useful for editors and reviewers, but they are a hard read for other academics, students and the public who simply want to know the results. And whilst the Internet has been used to accelerate and automate the publishing workflow, in academic publishing it has not been used to streamline the process and improve outcomes.
Following publication, and as another result of the Internet, the rise of social media – Twitter® in particular – has had a profound influence on the way publications are disseminated. Publishers, long used to disseminating journal contents lists and occasionally other information about their journals, now have journal websites to house content and highlight specific articles. A journal’s Twitter® feed often spearheads a range of other social media platforms such as blogs, podcasts or YouTube®. And again, although academic publishers have taken advantage of social media, it has merely been used as an alternative way of advertising the same old type of content.
So, what is new?
Some changes following the advent of the Internet do have the potential to revolutionise the academic publishing process though. These changes are described below.
From the days when data were jealously guarded, and researchers considered it a virtue to destroy data within a few years of completing a project, it is now almost de rigueur both to maintain data in perpetuity and to make it publicly available. Large databases are now available for secondary analysis, combining with other databases and, increasingly, subject to big data analysis and data-mining. A range of repositories is now available for storing and sharing data and these include ones that are hosted by universities and academic publishers and specialised project databases such as SHARE and BioBank.
Some journals have begun the use of ‘supplementary material’ as a way of making data available, as well as additional tables, figures, appendices and even reference lists if these aspects are restricted by the journal guidelines. Supplementary material can be made available online and accessible via hyperlinks embedded in the online version of the published article or via hyperlinks on the webpages of the journals. In fact, some publishers also provide hyperlinks for cited articles, taking readers directly to the online versions where these are available.
Largely due to the AllTrials campaign for transparency in the conduct and reporting of clinical trials there has been a significant move towards registering the protocols of studies in advance of conducting them. A range of registries exist across the world – ClinicalTrials.gov being a typical example – and these are, essentially, databases where researchers intending to conduct a clinical trial can publish the protocol. These databases permit the public to see what trials have been registered and there is provision for publishing deviations from protocols, an indication of completion of the trial and then a summary of the results. In addition, it is becoming more common to register systematic reviews and the Prospero website exists specifically for this. The Cochrane library also publishes the protocols of reviews that are being conducted under their auspices. The situation regarding study registration is being levered further by academic journals and publishers as they fight to put themselves visibly at the forefront of maintaining rigour and transparency in academic publishing.
Related to clinical trials and systematic reviews is the Equator network, on which a range of guidelines is available for standard ways of presenting studies with verifiable checklists and flow diagrams to track participation in clinical trials and retrieval of articles in systematic reviews.
Beginning in the 1990s and gathering momentum and credibility in recent years, has been the publication of preprints. Described by Wikipedia as: ‘…a version of a scholarly or scientific paper that precedes publication in a peer-reviewed scholarly or scientific journal. The preprint may be available, often as a non-typeset version available free, before and/or after a paper is published in a journal’. Preprints were born of a frustration with the length of time taken to review manuscripts and the need to share scientific results early. It does appear that academic publishers have largely accommodated the existence of preprints in recognition of the need to accelerate the publishing process. The Times Higher Education recently described preprints as being ‘largely indistinguishable’ from the final published articles.
Post-publication review refers to comment on publications once they have been published. This has always been possible either by correspondence with authors or in the correspondence pages of journals. But the advent of the internet and social media has facilitated this further and led to some consideration as to whether this might be a genuine alternative to pre-publication review. A process could be imagined whereby manuscripts are posted online -possibly as preprints – to receive comment and then be altered accordingly; to change and evolve as comments are made. Alternatively, published articles – either peer reviewed or not – could receive public comments for readers to take into consideration. Potentially several models exists and there has been the rise of platforms, e.g. PubPeer, which exist for this purpose, and facilities for comment within other platforms such as ReseachGate. Most recently publons, a site for recording reviewing and editing activity has championed post-publication review.
Wikipedia is an online open access encyclopaedia which may be freely edited. There are strict guidelines about what may be entered on Wikipedia and edits are closely monitored to ensure that all entries are useful and demonstrably linked to reliable sources. One extension of Wikipedia is Wikiversity, a Wikimedia project, which aims to support learning through provision of courses and tutorials. Unlike Wikipedia – where entries are not peer reviewed -Wikiversity allows the publication of original research through the WikiJournal project and this started with the WikiJournal of Medicine. This journal aims to publish peer reviewed articles which are then available open access. No article processing charge is made to authors; therefore, this is the ‘diamond’ route to open access and, being published as editable Wikipedia pages means that articles may be edited post-publication.
The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public. The Conversation ‘motto’ is ‘Academic rigour, journalistic flair’. Only academics or research students with official university email addresses may contribute to The Conversation and potential articles are ‘pitched’ using a structured format to a specialist editor who can decide to accept or reject the article. If accepted, the article must be written to a strict format – usually 700 words – and in language of a very high general readability: that of an educated 16-year-old. While articles are not peer reviewed, the editors will scrutinise them and check the provenance of the evidence being cited. Not every piece in The Conversation reports directly on research – some verge on opinion pieces – but backed by evidence. Many are very effective abstracts linked to original reports and data.
What is the future for academic publishing?
I envisage a future for academic publishing that could exist without the need for an academic publishing industry. All the elements are in place whereby academics could bypass the industry itself and bring together the description of a study design and methods (published protocol), access to the study data (repositories), a manuscript bringing together the design, methods and results in formats facilitated by the Equator Network (preprint) which is subsequently reviewed (WikiJournal) and, ultimately published in an accessible format like The Conversation.
How does the academic publishing industry survive?
First, it is a miracle it has survived given the pressure from the academic community and politicians for change, principally regarding open access to research results. That said, the academic publishing industry has adapted in some specific ways and evolved to accommodate open access (albeit with restrictions) and has also incorporated and, indeed, levered the use of data repositories, supplementary material and study registration. In addition, the industry appears to be tolerating preprints but is perhaps less enthusiastic about post-publication review. Currently, the development of Wikipedia-type journals is not a threat, but I would strongly urge the industry to ‘watch that space’.
However, there is a place for the academic publishing industry if it recognises the threat and accepts what is positive about the changes while offering a service that enhances the process, ensures open access and guarantees quality. The industry offers one thing that is unique and that is online platforms for manuscript submission, peer review management and processing of accepted manuscripts. These platforms and the processes they enable could easily be adapted to offer efficient ‘one-stop-shops’ for the range of processes required. The platforms could bring together in one place research protocols, data and preprints, and facilitate revision of preprints until the study was considered sufficiently robust by a handling editor. The final product could be a Conversation-type summary uniquely identified in the public domain with a digital object identifier published under an appropriate creative commons license. In this scenario, authors may well continue to use alternative means of publishing their work and eschew paying for the services of the academic publishers, but this will behove the industry to create products which are attractive and reasonably priced.
If the academic publishing industry continues to be driven purely by bibliometrics (citation-based metrics) such as Clarivate and Scopus and the impact factor then many aspects of the model proposed above will not and cannot happen. However, there is some pressure from within academia itself to stop using bibliometrics to measure performance, as articulated in the DORA (Declaration on Research Assessment). An alternative, more suitable to the potential changes in academic publishing, does already exist in the form of alternative metrics – the Altmetric® score – based on online mentions of articles across a range of platforms such as online newspapers and social media. Some academic publishers are already providing Altmetric scores on the landing pages of articles, and some people are already paying more attention to the public domain system of following citations offered by Google Scholar.
The academic publishing industry continues to change, and we can only assume this will continue. In parallel, the established processes of publishing are being eroded and alternative models are developing. The traditional academic article where all the aspects of a study are gathered in one long piece of writing, is surely on the verge of extinction. The purpose of such articles was to gather information, with references, that was otherwise inaccessible, couched within a structured argument and arranged into relatively standardised sections (Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion). Often, the essential information contained in such articles tells the reader little more than the abstract. In the age of social media, information overload and with the hundreds of journals available in most fields, publishers are going to have to find new ways of packaging their products and the processes of production must also move on.
The issues of quality and metrics are not insurmountable, and the role of editors is unlikely to become redundant. The traditional reliance on citations and derivative calculations may be threatened; but this will be welcomed by many. Alternative metrics, more tuned to the way information is now obtained, already exist and these could be used in conjunction with or even as an alternative to metrics based on citations.
Roger Watson declares the following interests: Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Advanced Nursing; Editor, Nursing Open; Editorial Board member, WikiJournal of Medicine.