Last year, we published a possible scenario for scientific journals, or, as we stressed in that post—our turn to fail miserably in the art of predicting the future (Brandao & Pirmez, 2018). Now it is time for a little incremental change (or adjustment?) to this forecast doomed to fail miserably, which noted a large shift in journal function and operational structure. There is a chance that journals will lose control over both the dissemination of research results and the reviewing process. These scenarios are projected from initiatives which are underway and are giving a new shape to scientific publishing, particularly in the biomedical sciences.
The biomedical community (especially the publishers) has long resisted innovations such as pre-publication exchange of research articles. One interesting example of this resistance was the attempt, launched in 1961, of the NIH - USA to promote the free circulation of research articles before formal publication (Cobb M. 2019). Owing to pressure from scientific publishers, the NIH was forced to abandon the programme several years later. The biomedical scientists waited for more than 50 years to witness the launch of the first biomedical preprint server, the Biorxiv, in 2013, hosted by the Cold Spring Laboratory, New York (USA).
Because of this preprint initiative, the biomedical community is slowly acknowledging the benefits of quick dissemination of research results. Much distrust of this type of science dissemination persists. Questions like the following are frequent:
1) Will these preprint articles be peer reviewed?
2) How can I prevent a competitor from taking my results and immediately publishing them in a traditional journal?
3) What quality would the papers uploaded to the preprint server have?
4) Can a preprint article be cited?
5) What would be the impact factor?
These questions are quickly answered if we consider a new concept: the preprint initiative is a disruptive movement that will give back full control of intellectual output to scientists. That is, scientists generate the data, and then proceed through five essential tasks: a) analyse the data; b) publish them immediately (data dissemination); c) correct and update (if needed) data; and d) decide which scientific data are relevant. This is completely different from the current landscape of science publishing: the individual scientist transfers the control of what is publishable to the journal editors (and reviewers). In the last three centuries, this third party control has evolved into a sophisticated publishing system that incentivises most scientists to work for free for the publishers, who then collect large sums of money from these same scientists by offering a unique service: making their research available to their peers. Even if we dismiss this new concept (re-taking full control of research dissemination), we can still answer the frequent questions about the current standards of scientific publishing. Take, for example, question 1 - how to address peer review for an article in preprint. Two points are worth considering: a) preprint servers and journals differ, among other things, by the gatekeeper role of an editor, who is absent in the preprint server; and b) peer review is the foundation for the ‘certification of quality in science’, but it is not failure-proof. Therefore, who will invite the scientists to review the papers of other scientists? It is quite possible that a solution will arise from the social media technology currently available.
The second question is answered by the mechanisms of digital tracking and peer-to-peer communication (e. g., blockchain technology): the article in which data is uploaded (public view) and its content are a digital tag uniquely associated with an author. Whoever first uploads an article to a preprint server is the one who deserves the credit for the scientific discovery. Many disputes about who first made a scientific discovery would not have happened if preprint publication was a practice in the 20th century (remember the several months a journal would take to process an article until final publication!). For the third question, the answer can be guessed by a simple visit to the ‘retraction_watch’ (https://retractionwatch.com/): thousands of peer reviewed papers were retracted for reasons ranging from replication failure (not complying with good laboratory practices) to ethical concerns (not complying with good publishing practices). Thus, peer reviewing an article is not an absolute guarantee of quality. In addition, to answer the final two questions: yes, articles in preprint can be cited, and the Impact Factor, well, do you mean it? Do you think it is still relevant? No comments… please!
There comes a time to think about a transition from a publishing model based on the static format (the journal/editor/reviewer set rooted in a three centuries-old practice) to a more dynamic format, centred on the concept ‘publicise first–criticise later’ (the hybrid set immediate publication/open peer review).
The concept of ‘institutional publishing platforms’ is not new. In fact, they have been around for at least one hundred years! Institutional publishing was precisely the foundational mission of our journal, Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz. In the beginning, this journal was exclusively dedicated to ‘publish the research work of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute’. An official description of the ‘raison d'être’ of Memorias do IOC can be read in two federal decrees (n. 1812, 12 December 1907; n. 20.043, 27 May 1931). Remark: Memorias is now an international journal that publishes articles from researchers all over the world!
At least from the point of view of Memorias do IOC editors (past and present), the concept of an ‘institutional publishing activity’ is not a strange practice. Though this journal has significantly changed in the last forty years, mainly by assuming a ‘global’ perspective for science dissemination in the broad field of ‘microorganisms and their vectors causing human infections’ (a definition coined by our former editor Hooman Momen), it still retains some ‘institutional’ remnants, for example, our denomination in Portuguese, Memorias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz, and the sponsor, the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz).
The shift toward an ‘institutional publishing platform’ might seem ‘old-fashioned’, however in reality, it is a proper format for science dissemination which uses the communication technology of the twenty-first century. Additionally, it is a financially rational decision for institutions which have a mandate to disseminate research results exclusively in open access. With the increasing pressure to publish research articles under open access and the elevated fees that most journals charge from authors, the funders and research institutions must add another expensive item to their science budget. The result is more complaints from the managers: we need more money, every new year!
In 2012, the host Institution of Memorias do IOC, the Fiocruz, approved an open access policy for researchers working in its laboratories. We are not alone in this endeavour: other international research funders, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have also approved the open access policy advocating free access to scientific articles and full disclosure of data. To help researchers comply with the open access policy, these two organizations have established their own publishing platforms, the Wellcome Open Research (https://wellcomeopenresearch.org/) and the Gates Open Research (https://gatesopenresearch.org/), both operated by a third party, F1000 Research.
Journals with a long history of contribution to science dissemination, like Memorias, are now challenged by such innovations, and they have two options for ‘possible’ futures:
a) the reorientation of their strategy/mission: they should adapt to an environment of scarce funding, high demand for quality, transparency, innovation, and openness in scientific publishing;
b) be viewed as a good ‘case study’ by scholars who analyse the reasons why some scientific journals have disappeared!
1. Brandão A., Pirmez C - (https://memorias.ioc.fiocruz.br/recent-posts/item/40-a-possible-future-for-editors-and-scientific-journals-in-an-environment-of-decentralized-and-instantaneous-dissemination-of-science).
2. Cobb M. The prehistory of biology preprints: A forgotten experiment from the 1960s. PLoS Biology. 2017. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2003995.
3. Decree n. 1.812. https://www2.camara.leg.br/legin/fed/decret/1900-1909/decreto-1802-12-dezembro-1907-582504-publicacaooriginal-105302-pl.html
4. Decree n. 20.043. https://www2.camara.leg.br/legin/fed/decret/1930-1939/decreto-20043-27-maio-1931-515748-publicacaooriginal-83689-pe.html