by Yan Zheng
Traditionally, researchers pay a fee to submit their manuscripts to scholarly journals, have them rigorously peer reviewed, and eventually published. Yet the publishers claim copyright to the researchers’ work and require hefty subscription fees for the public to gain access to the articles, most of which report publicly funded work. Although many universities pay for some of these subscriptions on behalf of faculty and students, financial barriers still limit the extent of access differentially across institutions. Many universities can barely afford them. Even Harvard, one of the wealthiest universities in the world, has qualms about the academic publishing industry and asserted in a memorandum that “many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive.” This arguably slows down the dissemination of scientific discovery and impedes the progress of science. And who ultimately is profiting from this system? The publishing companies are, thanks to the free labor they receive from researchers who write the articles and the referees who review them.
In contrast to traditional journals, “open-access” journals are freely available online to be downloaded, distributed, printed and read. The movement towards open-access began in the late 1990s when researchers and librarians started to get frustrated with the rising costs of journal subscriptions, even when publishing should have been getting less costly due to the accessibility of the internet. Such open access articles arguably have better opportunities for achieving higher impact, and they are more likely to be cited and used, simply because more people can access them. A few well-known examples of successful open-access journals and publishers are Public Library of Science (PLoS) and its derivatives, Biomed Central, and Faculty1000 (F1000).
Of course questions arise regarding the integrity of open-access journals, in terms of the peer review process and quality of the science. Most open-access journals are run by an author-pays system, as opposed to a reader-pays system. As a result, it may be tempting for journal editors to accept manuscripts for financial gain rather than publishing sound science, resulting in the potential damage of the peer review process and the publishing of scientifically unqualified articles.
A journalist at Science recently investigated the practices of some open-access journals, eventually calling the industry an “emerging Wild West in academic publishing.” In his “sting operation,” he drafted manuscripts having fatal scientific flaws and submitted them to about 300 journals—157 accepted the paper whereas only 98 rejected it. It seemed as if many of these journals didn’t even bother to review the articles before accepting them. Although the numbers might be biased since only journals that do not require initial processing fees were chosen for the investigation, it uncovered the poor quality control in a subgroup of open-access journals.
In many cases, as revealed above, the unethical practices of journal editors with the financial incentive to accept papers with little regard to merit, the peer review process is abandoned. There is a name for these blatant types of open-access journals—predatory journals—for which academic publishing is simply a profitable business, not a vehicle for scientific progress. Furthermore, even when peer review is “attempted,” there are cases where reviewers’ comments and suggestions are completely dismissed.
“Open peer review” is proposed to address this issue, amongst many. In contrast to the traditional anonymous peer review system, open peer review publicly discloses the identities and the comments of the referees. The transparency in the review process allows for discussion and supervision by the scientific community, and thus it reduces possible bias and misconduct. So far, this open peer review model has been tried by a number of publishers with mixed, but overall positive results.
One example of an open-access, open review journal is Faculty1000Research (F1000R). There, the review process has two stages. In the first stage, manuscripts that pass the initial in-house editorial check are posted on the publisher’s website immediately within days or weeks. The online posts are then subjected to formal peer review by selected referees, whose comments are also published along with various revised versions of the manuscript. The review process is also open to the public, meaning people from the science community, including the authors, can discuss the paper interactively online. In the second stage, when peer review is completed, new revisions are updated online and the papers that pass the entire peer review process are indexed on PubMed. Inherent in its design, F1000R will keep negatively reviewed and effectively rejected articles in their database as well, but because of the transparent review process, readers will know this and use their discretion, and rejected articles will not be indexed in PubMed.
Even with the disadvantages and improvements to be made, open-access and open peer review models are gaining traction and legitimacy in the scientific publishing world. The transparency in science publishing are promising initiatives that will lead to an open environment for more effective science communication, and shift the control from the hands of the journal editors to the hands of the authors and consumers of scientific literature.
Yan is a former Ph.D. student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who recently graduated. She is from China. Her current goal is to improve her communication skills both in writing and public speaking.