Here's why the scientific publishing system can never be "fixed"

There’s been much discussion recently about how the scientific publishing system is “broken”. Just the latest one that I saw was a tweet from Princeton biophysicist Josh Shaevitz:

On this blog, we’ve talked quite a bit about the publishing system, including in this interview with Michael Eisen. Jeff recently posted about changing the reviewing system (again). We have a few other posts on this topic. Yes, we like to complain like the best of them.

But there’s a simple fact: The scientific publishing system, as broken as you may find it to be, can never truly be fixed.

Here’s the tl;dr

  • The collection of scientific publications out there make up a marketplace of ideas, hypotheses, theorems, conjectures, and comments about nature.
  • Each member of society has an algorithm for placing a value on each of those publications. Valuation methodologies vary, but they often include factors like the reputation of the author(s), the journal in which the paper was published, the source of funding, as well as one’s own personal beliefs about the quality of the work described in the publication.
  • Given a valuation methodology, each scientist can rank order the publications from “most valuable” to “least valuable”.
  • Fixing the scientific publication system would require forcing everyone to agree on the same valuation methodology for all publications.

The Marketplace of Publications

The first point is that the collection of scientific publications make up a kind of market of ideas. Although we don’t really “trade” publications in this market, we do estimate the value of each publication and label some as “important” and some as not important. I think this is important because it allows us to draw analogies with other types of markets. In particular, consider the following question: Can you think of a market in any item where each item was priced perfectly, so that every (rational) person agreed on its value? I can’t.

Consider the stock market, which might be the most analyzed market in the world. Professional investors make their entire living analyzing the companies that are listed on stock exchanges and buying and selling their shares based on what they believe is the value of those companies. And yet, there can be huge disagreements over the valuation of these companies. Consider the current Herbalife drama, where investors William Ackman and Carl Icahn (and Daniel Loeb) are taking complete opposite sides of the trade (Ackman is short and Icahn is long). They can’t both be right about the valuation; they must have different valuation strategies. Everyday, the market’s collective valuation of different companies changes, reacting to new information and perhaps to irrational behavior. In the long run, good companies survive while others do not. In the meantime, everyone will argue about the appropriate price.

Journals are in some ways like the stock exchanges of yore. There are very prestigious ones (e.g. NYSE, the “big board”) and there are less prestigious ones (e.g. NASDAQ) and everyone tries to get their publication into the prestigious journals. Journals have listing requirements–you can’t just put any publication in the journal. It has to meet certain standards set by the journal. The importance of being listed on a prestigious stock exchange has diminished somewhat over the years. The most valuable company in the world trades on the NASDAQ.  Similarly, although Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine are still quite sought after by scientists, competition is increasing from journals (such as those from the Public Library of Science) who are willing to publish papers that are technically correct and let readers determine their importance.

What’s the “Fix”?

Now let’s consider a world where we obliterate journals like Nature and Science and that there’s only the “one true journal”. Suppose this journal accepts any publication that satisfies some basic technical requirements (i.e. not content-based) and then has a sophisticated rating system that allows readers to comment on, rate, and otherwise evaluate each publication. There is no pre-publication peer review. Everything is immediately published. Problem solved? Not really, in my opinion. Here’s what I think would end up happening:

  • People would have to (slightly) alter their methodology for ranking individual scientists. They would not be able to say “so-and-so has 10 Nature papers, so he must be good”. But most likely, another proxy for actually reading the appears would arise. For example, “My buddy from University of Whatever put this paper in his top-ten list, so it must be good”. As Michael Eisen said in our interview, the ranking system induced by journals like Science and Nature is just an abstract hierarchy; we can still reproduce the hierarchy even if Science/Nature don’t exist.
  • In the current system, certain publications often “get stuck” with overly inflated valuations and it is often difficult to effectively criticize such publications because there does not exist an equivalent venue for informed criticism on par with Science and Nature. These publications achieve such high valuations partly because they are published in high-end journals like Nature and Science, but partly it is because some people actually believe they are valuable. In other words, it is possible to create a “bubble” where people irrationally believe a publication is valuable, just because everyone believes it’s valuable. If you destroy the current publication system, there will still be publications that are “over-valued”, just like in every other market. And furthermore, it will continue to be difficult to criticize such publications. Think of all the analysts that were yelling about how the housing market was dangerously inflated back in 2007. Did anyone listen? Not until it was too late.

What Can be Done?

I don’t mean for this post to be depressing, but I think there’s a basic reality about publication that perhaps is not fully appreciated. That said, I believe there are things that can be done to improve science itself, as well as the publication system.

  • Raise the ROC curves of science. Efforts in this direction make everyone better and improve our ability to make more important discoveries.
  • Increase the reproducibility of science. This is kind of the “Sarbanes-Oxley” of science. For the most part, I think the debate about whether science should be made more reproducible is coming to a close (or it is for me). The real question is how do we do it, for all scientists? I don’t think there are enough people thinking about this question. It will likely be a mix of different strategies, policies, incentives, and tools.
  • Develop more sophisticated evaluation technologies for publications. Again, to paraphrase Michael Eisen, we are better able to judge the value of a pencil on Amazon than we are able to judge a scientific publication. The technology exists for improving the system, but someone has to implement it. I think a useful system along these lines would go a long way towards de-emphasizing the importance of “vanity journals” like Nature and Science.
  • Make open access more accessible. Open access journals have been an important addition to the publication universe, but they are still very expensive (the cost has just been shifted). We need to think more about lowering the overall cost of publication so that it is truly open access.

Ultimately, in a universe where there are finite resources, a system has to be developed to determine how those resources should be distributed. Any system that we can come up with will be flawed as there will by necessity have to be winners and losers. I think there are serious efforts that need to be made to make the system more fair and more transparent, but the problem will never truly be “fixed” to everyone’s satisfaction.