The Ugly Truth Behind Scientific Publishing

Dan Pallotta once said, speaking of charity business models: “If you think about it for 30 seconds it makes sense. Longer than 30 seconds, it starts to fall apart.” Pallotta might as well have been talking about science publishing. It makes sense only when thought about superficially. It’s the critical thinking that reveals the monster, the monster that is scientific publishing.

I just finished paying $1,211 to publish a scientific article that is ~950 words. Earlier this year, I co-authored another article; this one was ~3,500 words and cost $1,322. That’s $1.27 per word for one article and $0.38 per word for the other; two costly articles that were actually discounted prices because: (1) I’m a student; and (2) because it was an invited article.

How did I pay for these?

Well, I didn’t really. You did, the taxpayer. One was paid for with federal grant money and the other by the library at the public institution I work at. Want to read them? Go ahead, they are both “open access” meaning you don’t have to pay the roughly 40 dollars that many journals charge. But try reading another article and you may—around 80% of scientific publications cost money to read.

It’s the critical thinking that reveals the monster, the monster that is scientific publishing

The cost of publishing both those papers was frustrating and painful but I nonetheless went ahead with publication. Why pay roughly fifty cents per word? Or more generally, why do scientists pay so much to publish? The answer is simple: scientific publishing is in itself a “token of scientific success” regardless of the merit of the article. Publish in the right journals and you’re in the “golden club”, a club that brings all the prizes scientists care about: grants, tenure, fame, and more publications. You may have heard the admonitory adage ‘publish or perish’ before. It’s been around for decades and it’s what you learn as soon as you start out in academia. It’s also the reason predatory publishing exists. Scientists eager to build their resume at any cost are easy prey. And this brings us to the ugly truth: we care more about scientific careers than scientific principles.

This ugly truth is reflected in the fact that 89% of “landmark” cancer studies can’t be reproduced! This means that more times than not, scientific work simply reflects the bias of the scientist and isn’t a real verifiable result. Reproducibility, remember, is the definition of science. But the way we evaluate scientists today—where they publish, not what they publish—is a mismeasure.

We care more about scientific careers than scientific principles

So what do we do? How do we put the RE back into REsearch? We can write more scientific articles lamenting the flawed inner workings of the system, this will after all give us more publications. Indeed, I have done this before but it won’t change much, change requires action by people like you and I. This is why I am starting The Winnower.

The Winnower is a new scientific publishing platform, or as it’s more commonly known, a journal. But The Winnower is not just any journal, it’s an open access, post-publication, peer-reviewed journal. That mouthful means that from the moment you submit your paper to the moment you finalize it, your work can be read and reviewed by all. Because the reviews you receive should help strengthen the paper, there will be an open period during which edits can be made to the paper. Once made final, papers published in The Winnower will be assigned a DOI so that they can be cited in other studies.

The Winnower will provide various metrics on papers including page views, downloads, “altmetrics”, as well as scores from structured reviews. These metrics, along with actually reading the article, will allow the scientific community to evaluate research for what it is instead of where it’s published. To ensure sustainability of the site and growth in the future, authors will be charged a flat fee of $100.00.

So, if you’re also fed up with the monster, help us kill it. Publish with The Winnower.

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1 Comment

  1. Lee J Rickard

    March 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    This sounds like a good idea. Let me throw something else into the pot. In statistics, I’ve seen articles where the journal published the paper, the report of the referee, the author’s response to the referee, and the referee’s response to that. When done right, it brings out a lot of background that can be very helpful to the reader.

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