Possible future for editors and scientific journals in an environment of decentralized and instantaneous dissemination of science

Predicting the consequences of current events in the medium to long term has only one certainty: in the overwhelming majority of cases, the prediction will fail!  That rate of failure is the reason why future studies scholars always caution that the main goal of a future analysis is to delimit "probable and desirable outcomes" of current events under social, demographic and technological aspects of human society.

Computers are a good example of how difficult it is to predict future developments from the current standards. If we went back to the computer industry in the 1950s, took its concepts, hardware and practices and then imagined what hardware and software we would have 60 years in the future, the so-imagined devices and practices would hardly approach what we have today. At that time, computers were enormous and expensive pieces of hardware, requiring specialized engineers and programmers to function, as well as a large amount of electrical energy! No forecaster has been able to predict the power, design and fascinating capacity of our current smart phones (thousands of times more powerful than those huge computers). Of course, this is the easiest job in the future preview landscape: to identify the failed previews.

When forecasters cannot detect abrupt changes in either the social or economic environment, the consequences can be catastrophic (for example, the financial crisis in 2008 or the recent mass human migration from Africa towards Europe). Before the occurrence of these two events, a world of ever-increasing wealth, economic development, tolerance and optimism was a picture commonly portrayed by forecasters from several fields. To our dismay, this picture has been shown to be dramatically wrong!

These limitations notwithstanding, future projecting from current perspective is still an attractive task for many people in academia, government, business and social organizations. The simplest explanation might be that human beings are attracted to things that they "do not know yet", or they like to "jump into uncertainty, into the unknown". Saying these words to define our propensity to constantly figure out the "future" seems to be a "cliché", but ever since the first humans left Africa, significant advancements have happened only because certain individuals (or groups) ventured into risky and challenging enterprises. As editors of Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, it is our turn to try failing in the "art of future projection from current practices" about the noble mission of editing and publishing scientific articles. We already know that this forecast will fail miserably, but guessing what science editors will do in the next several years is irresistible. Therefore, it is time to propose the truly big question: in the future, will the scientific community need editors and journals as we know them today?

Another question comes before the big one: do we need these changes? If yes, why do we need to change? Our first step towards this goal is to make clear why we need these changes. We have been highlighting in the digital pages of Memorias (see our earlier posts) some problems with the current system of publication and peer-review of scientific articles. Although the academic mind-set relies on the peer-review system as a validation tool for their work, the research community is not entirely satisfied by this system, and we expect that the new technological environment could help improve the certification of the scientific research. In our last post (http://memorias.ioc.fiocruz.br/recent-posts/item/39-open-and-collaborative-review-of-scientific-articles-are-we-ready-for-the-next-step) we mentioned that two necessary elements are already here: preprint and the digital interconnected technology that reaches every researcher and scientific reader in the world. We now expect that entrepreneurs should do the job of providing the devices and methods to enable these two elements to work together.

That said, suppose that we have the following scenarios:

There is a working method or device that allows thousands of researchers and readers around the world to be interconnected in real time, creating a free, unrestricted and self-controlled scientific information highway. This method (or device) must be safe and fulfil all of the privacy requirements necessary for exchanging confidential information among researchers.

a) All researchers are now using the preprint servers. This means that all scientific information is both immediately and freely accessible to everyone in the world. Both research institutions and funding agencies have also adhered to the preprint policy of the dissemination of science.

b) Every researcher is able to build a personal node in this information highway that works analogously to an editor dashboard: selecting the relevant articles for reading and subsequently commenting, criticizing, suggesting corrections, recommending or not to his/her colleagues. This individual researcher node is expected to grow and become highly interconnected in the scientific space network and will be regarded as a focal point to that particular field or sub-area. Eventually, thousands of such nodes may arise to disseminate scientific information that is reliable and worthy for their peers.

The consequences could be that researchers realize that they do not need intermediaries (e.g., editors and journal publishers) to deliver their research results to their peers. If the three conditions above are completely satisfied, the editors and publishers of journals will cease to be useful with respect to their former services, that is, exclusively certifying science by selecting articles that match their own interests. In addition, a question from the perspective of the individual researcher would be the following: why do I need intermediaries (the set journal publisher/editor) to disseminate a research work that is already available to my peers for whatever they want, e.g., reading, commenting, criticizing, sharing, and replicating?

Another possible consequence would be that editors and publishers would lose power to decide what is or is not read by the research community. If they wish to remain useful to the scientific community, they must search for and develop services that exclusively match the researcher’s interest.

In conclusion, if we think of journals merely as vehicles in which to carry the scientific information, rather than a platform for giving prestige or certification, then a possible future role for editors is to make this information more attractive to other people. Considering this role, the editor should polish the research work by, for instance, improving its presentation and visual effects, adding complementary information, and highlighting parts of the research that are not obvious to non-specialists. These steps are typical editorial work without intervention in content or straight rejection of research works, which are actions expected to happen solely by the reviewing efforts of peers in the open network of the scientific information highway.



Adeilton Brandão
Claude Pirmez

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