News Ages Quickly

Scientific publishing moves into the 21st century at last

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Arguably, the Information Age began in 1665. That was the year the Journal des scavans and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London started regular publication. Making new scientific information more easily and widely available was the spark that ignited the Industrial Revolution. The founding editor of the Journal des scavans, Denis de Sallo, chose to publish his new journal weekly because, as he explained, "news ages quickly." Scientific news ages even more quickly in the 21st century than it did in the 17th century.

Last week, one of the world's leading scientific journals, Nature, conceded this fact by launching Nature Precedings. Nature Precedings aims to be an online "place for researchers to share pre-publication research, unpublished manuscripts, presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and other scientific documents." The new archive will make contributions from biology, medicine, chemistry and the earth sciences available online. The articles, papers and presentations are evaluated for relevance by an editorial board but are not subject to more rigorous peer-review.

Nature Precedings and the life sciences are finally catching up with physicists and mathematicians. In 1991, physicist Paul Ginsparg launched arXive.org (the X is pronounced as the Greek letter Chi). ArXive is an online system for distributing scientific research results which bypasses the conventional avenues of scientific publication. ArXive offers open access to 427,608 e-prints in physics, mathematics, computer science and quantitative biology. E-prints are not peer-reviewed by editors but readers can decide for themselves how scientifically valuable they are.

Besides online pre-prints, scientific publishing is moving rapidly toward an open access model. In February, 2000, the National Institute of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information launched PubMed Central, its open access archive of over 350 biomedical and life sciences journals. Two weeks ago, PubMed Central announced that it had archived its millionth article. The year 2000, also saw the creation of the open access British publisher, BioMed Central which has now grown to 177 peer-reviewed journals. All BioMed Central journals are available at PubMed Central. In 2002, the University of Lund, with support of the Open Society Institute and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition created the online Directory of Open Access Journals which currently lists 2725 journals. Last week, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to direct the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to require that all research the agency funds be made publicly available on the internet within one year after journal publication.

Also in 2000, three prominent biomedical researchers launched the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Initially PLoS encouraged other scientific journals to make their articles available for free online. In 2003, PLoS began launching a series of online peer-reviewed open source electronic journals. Although arXive publishes pre-prints without peer review, Ginsparg foresaw the possibility that segments of the scientific community (he suggested non-profit scientific societies that publish journals) might "continue to organize high-quality peer-reviewed overlays." .

In a sense this is what the PLoS journals are now doing. Since clinical biomedicine depends on the results of randomized control trials, peer review currently remains an important process for maintaining data quality. In addition, there is the real possibility that desperate patients might be misled by bad or incomplete biomedical information. Harold Sox, editor of Annals of Internal Medicine has noted, "If a medical article gets out and it's wrong, the consequences may be greater." Based on such concerns, Nature Precedings will not accept any submissions describing the results of clinical trials or those making specific therapeutic claims.

Of course, peer review is no absolute guarantor of scientific validity. Martin Blume, editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society and its nine physics journals, says that peer review overlooks honest errors as well as deliberate fraud. "Peer review doesn't necessarily say that a paper is right," he notes. "It says it's worth publishing."

And in any case, peer review is changing from a one time evaluation by anonymous reviewers of a self-contained research article to a continuous online process. PLoS has launched a new comprehensive online journal, PLoS One, featuring reports of primary research from all disciplines within science and medicine. The editorial board will make prompt decisions on whether or not any particular paper merits publication and may refer it to outside reviewers. But unlike print journals, publication is not the end of the peer review process.

Once an article has been published on the PLoS One site, community-based open post-publication peer review involving online annotation, discussion, and rating begins. Post-publication peer reviewers can briefly annotate the text of the article with corrections, additions, or links to other relevant articles. They may also engage in online debates concerning the content, conclusions, and consequences of a specific paper. And finally, users may assign ratings to papers. The hope is that online critiques will detect errors or fraud more quickly. This is peer review on steroids.

At PLoS One, comments and annotations may not be anonymous. According to the PLoS good practice guidelines for commenting post-publication reviewers should confine their criticisms to the demonstrable content of papers and avoid speculation about the motivations or prejudices of authors. It may be "good practice" now, but it is inevitable that that in the future post-publication peer reviewers will disclose any associations (proper and improper) that they believe relevant to the findings reported in a paper.

As Ginsparg noted eleven years ago at a UNESCO conference on the future of electronic publishing, "in some fields of physics, the on-line electronic archives immediately became the primary means of communicating ongoing research information, with conventional journals entirely supplanted in this role." Science, Nature, and Cell have nothing to worry about if it turns out that open access and pre-print websites don't attract cutting edge articles. On the other hand, it a good bet that opening access and speeding research to the public via online archives will accelerate scientific and technological progress just as their 17th century precursors did.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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