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How Early Dreams Of Online Publishing Have Changed

Like the jetpacks of sci-fi lore, chemists are still waiting for these three promised publishing practices to become reality

by Andrea Widener
August 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 32


Illustration of man in jetpack.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

#1: Open Access Publication

Catriona MacCallum remembers the big ideas that people imagined in the early days of online science publishing. “To open up collaboration. To exchange documents. To have conversations. That was the miracle of the Internet,” says MacCallum, advocacy manager for the Public Library of Science (PLOS). Many dreamed that research papers would be available to everyone, without paying the high fees that traditionally plagued print journals.

Running into inspiration online, by Carolyn Bertozzi

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi
Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Chemists of a certain age will recognize this scene: a late night in the library, heavy volumes of Chemical Abstracts splayed over a table, eyes straining to read the tiny typeset for that reference that might save your research project. You pray that once you find it, the volume will be on the correct shelf, and that the page in question hasn’t been ripped out by a callous colleague. And then you hope that the copy machine has ink and paper and isn’t jammed beyond repair. That was literature research before the Internet.

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Now the universe of knowledge is a few keystrokes and mere seconds away; finding information that might transform your research is no longer a brute-force war of attrition, but more akin to a heat-seeking missile.

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

But what of those pearls of chemistry we inadvertently tripped over during the late-night slogs through library stacks? Every chemist back then had a story of that image, structure, or article title that somehow caught the eye, on its face unrelated to the subject at hand, but nonetheless it ignited a new idea.

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Can the Internet offer an alternative muse? I say yes, in the form of social media. The random walk of long nights in the library may be replaced by our Twitter feeds, constantly delivering serendipitous encounters with science outside of our targeted literature searches. For example, a few years back, my lab was grappling with the instability of a reagent that we wanted to study in water. A chance online encounter with a supramolecular chemistry paper spawned an idea for capturing the unstable compound as a cyclodextrin complex. No targeted search would have gotten us there.

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Also, open access publishing can bring new ideas to citizens across disciplinary, geographical, and economic divides. By lowering the barrier of access to the scientific literature, more people have the opportunity to bump into something that sparks inspiration.

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Collectively, the Internet invites the globe, unencumbered by copy-machine malfunctions, to browse at lightning speed. With all that power, the question is, how do we as chemists and publishers wield the Internet to maximize the potential?

Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi

Carolyn Bertozzi is a professor at Stanford University, and the editor-in-chief of the open access journal ACS Central Science

PLOS wasn’t the first group to create open access research journals, but it became the most famous by trying to compete with top print journals such as Science and Nature. Entrenched interests made scientific publishing difficult to change, even for researchers who believed in open access, MacCallum says. For example, where people published—and what impact factor those journals had—was intimately intertwined with promotion and tenure decisions. So far open access journals haven’t been able to match the impact factors of traditional journals.

MacCallum thinks open access is still growing, however. Some funding foundations are requiring that their grantees make research publications available for free. The federal government has said its funded research must be freely available to the public within a year of publication. Even universities are putting together repositories containing free copies of their researchers’ papers.

Publishing itself is also changing; for example, many publishers are putting papers on the Internet as soon as they are edited rather than waiting for publication of issues. That leaves an opening for reform, she says. The question is, how are we going to capture and enable that very useful shift?

#2: Postpublication Review

When the Internet began moving mainstream, many people envisioned that scientists would one day be able to freely critique published, peer-reviewed research online. “People really did think it was going to be an overnight revolution and tip the balance of power and so on,” remembers Hilda Bastian, who helps run PubMed Commons, an online community within the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed site that discusses research articles.

But there were also major fears, which may have prevented online reviews of science papers from taking off. Some worried that “you would have comments that would get really aggressive and time-consuming,” Bastian says. “Or it would be trivial and a waste of their time.”

Neither extreme has turned out to be quite right. Bastian has found that even though PubMed Commons doesn’t see a lot of aggressive attacks, it also “is not being used very much.”

The reason might be that “there is still a great deal of skepticism among editors—and researchers in general—about postpublication peer review and online criticism,” says Philip Moriarty, a University of Nottingham physicist who works closely with chemists.

An example of this reticence can be seen in the slow early growth of the website PubPeer, which is devoted to reviews of scientific papers. The site didn’t have many critiques of papers until it allowed posts to be anonymous. But Moriarty hopes that won’t be true going forward. “Commenters should be willing to stand up and be counted, to put their name behind their opinions,” he says.

It’s too soon to say that online reviews aren’t going to take off, Bastian says. The biggest problem isn’t that people aren’t interested. “The Internet has meant this incredible information overload,” she says. “Where do you find the time?”

And how do you get the word out? When Moriarty speaks at conferences he finds that just a fraction of his audience has even heard about PubPeer or other commenting sites. “We’ve still got a long way to go in terms of visibility.”

#3: Prepublication review

Why wait for a journal to review your paper to find out what the scientific community thinks? Publishing data directly online or getting early critiques of your papers through a prepublication site was one dream inspired by the Internet.

For some disciplines, such as particle physics and astronomy, it has become a reality through preprint sites such as arXiv. Because those disciplines often have enormous research teams, their research is open to a large community before it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Chemistry hasn’t yet embraced that level of openness. Nottingham’s Moriarty suspects that is because of entrenched traditions in the community about traditional journals being the more prestigious way to publish. “Opening up papers for online debate should be the norm and hopefully will be de rigueur for the next generation of research scientists,” he says.

Some amount of formal peer review might be helpful, though. Cognitive psychologist Jeff Shrager of Stanford University wanted to find out if prepublication review actually results in better research, so he created a computer model to identify the perfect level of peer review. His model showed that the ideal might be a happy medium between no formal reviews—the equivalent of a scientist unveiling her research prepublication—and the extensive reviews prevalent in top research journals (PLOS One 2010, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010782).

Peer review provides some sanity check on a paper, Shrager says. “I don’t think there is going to be a regimen where completely open science is ever going to happen or even be desired.”


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