Selected Posts: PLoS’ Squandered Opportunity — Their Problems with the Path of Least Resistance, Does Rejecting Papers Amount to More Than Just a Transaction Cost?, and Where Trust Is Built and How It Can Be Destroyed — A Publisher’s Perspective
A theme for 2010 for me was what I’ll call the wikification of research reports. Once rare items of great domain-specific interest, research reports quickly became broadly available and overwhelming in number as the Internet created unimagined capacity and distribution, as well as lower barriers to publication. How we’re dealing with all this has been a question on my mind for years, and it weighed more heavily than usual during 2010.
Initiatives like PLoS ONE brought the prominence of “methodologically sound” research reporting to the fore, bending the journal genre in ways that few seem interested in actively addressing for the sake of providing clarity to users. Instead, “methodologically sound” became a sort of fig leaf for bulk publishing operations across many publishers.
The first post listed above created the most controversy for me this year, and was I think somewhat misunderstood. The trigger for this particular post was a poorly executed study published in PLoS ONE. Since it was a topic I could fairly critique, the paper’s weaknesses and exaggerated conclusions were clear. But it reminded me of how PLoS had started out — as a potential game-changer in a positive way, young Turks bent on improving scientific publishing through radical and merciless innovation. Yet here I was, looking at a brand that was clearly sending mixed messages — high-quality and very traditional core journals in biology and medicine, and a high-volume, ill-defined, author-pays repository proudly boasting the amount it publishes. And I began to worry about their brand.
Questions of brand and trust came up again and again this year. In one post, I argued the obvious point — but one we often forget — that rejecting papers is a way of defining a journal. Reject more, and your journal can rise in prestige. Accept more, and your journal can fall in prestige. Either way, rejection is more than just a cost — it’s also a way of defining and differentiating your brand.
People trust journals, but I’ve been wondering this year about how much we’re abusing that trust. In one post, I summarized a talk I gave at the Charleston conference about trust — how tenuous our hold on it is, and where it actually resides. And largely, I believe, it resides in the brand and the process we all believe a journal represents. That means that abusing the genre of “journal” creates the potential for widespread problems.
This same type of problem arose in the medical literature around the drug reboxetine. Data was suppressed selectively from research reports, indicating a need for a new way of publishing research data — another indication that we need something between the bench and the journal, something new.
To me, the wikification of research reporting — the often admirable attitude that everything should see the light of day as long as it meets minimal requirements of having done what was proposed and having been written clearly enough — will be a frontier we’ll be fine-tuning for many years to come. In my opinion, these new outlets demand new definitions of what this type of information release amounts to. Just as arXiv redefined publishing for certain areas of physics, the rest of science needs some clearer distinctions. If we continue to call everything “journals” and “books” and “articles,” we’re both missing opportunities to encourage new and useful ways of reporting while confusing users of the literature who can’t discern subtle and important differences the terms obscure.