At the STM Association Annual Meeting in “virtual Frankfurt” last week, much of the focus was on how scholarly publishers are responding to the COVID crisis. Publishing executives reported how they have accelerated their editorial and peer review processes for COVID submissions, rightly taking pride in the contributions they have made to fighting the pandemic. They also emphasized again and again that they want to be more trusted. This is a formidable challenge in light of some recent failures. To achieve their objectives, publishers need to become more comfortable talking about their mistakes to prove convincingly that they are learning from them.
Let’s be clear that at the highest level scientific publishers — commercial and not-for-profit alike — have much to be proud of this year. Journals have implemented dramatic changes to their editorial and peer review processes to speed up time to publication for COVID related materials. Annette Flanagin shared that JAMA is utilizing a differential peer review process, with greater scrutiny for articles that, if published, would be “likely to influence clinical practice or public health.” And, with the volume of submissions up substantially, publishers have collectively scaled up their throughput, increasing the number of articles published by 11% at Springer Nature, according to CEO Frank Vrancken Peeters. All this is impressive, especially in light of the disruptions that publishers (like so many enterprises) have faced themselves during the pandemic.
To speed up and scale up journal publishing, not to mention other parts of their businesses, scholarly publishers have clearly made investments, at least selectively. Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit reported adding resources to editorial and production functions, not least of which was developing artificial intelligence systems to speed up COVID paper processing. A publisher with a substantial share of its revenues sourced from article processing charges (APCs) might find this to be a profitable opportunity, but others might be unable to offset the added expenses. Accelerated review while maintaining a high degree of rigor cannot be achieved without significant expense. Within the context of other businesses and sectors making major cuts, these investments and the organizations behind them deserve to be celebrated.
At the same time, I would encourage publishers to balance their celebrations with self-reflection. Scholarly publishers wish to see themselves as stewards of the scholarly record and of the transition to open science. To do so in a way that is compelling to all stakeholders, they must continuously increase the quality and rigor of their work, probe their processes for weaknesses, and make their work ever more resilient against potential points of failure.
For all the contributions that publishers have made this year, the record is not unblemished. According to Retraction Watch, more than 35 COVID papers have been retracted or withdrawn, including more than 20 scholarly journal articles and others posted as preprints. To be sure, this is a very small percentage of the many thousands of COVID papers released this year. Still, it is a serious matter. Among the withdrawn papers were several published in top-tier journals, including the infamous cases of research published in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine that had to be withdrawn because best practices around data availability and reuse were neither followed nor enforced. These withdrawn articles were among those that received intense public and media interest. They have contributed to the swirl of public confusion and politicization of science that have made a public health crisis worse than it might have been.
While editors of an individual journal may learn lessons the hard way, it seems to be less common for publishers to fix these problems for their entire portfolio, let alone for them to be addressed on a sector-wide basis. Certainly, none of the executives speaking last week “at Frankfurt” addressed the matter. One CEO later agreed that there is “lots more we can and should do to reinvent,” but when the question was raised during the session it was difficult to avoid the perception that others were more of a mind to minimize the problems (“a few cases where we have dropped the ball“) and change the subject.
Yes, this is an unprecedented moment, but it is also a good one to look at the systemic dynamics. Indeed, in the wake of any single retraction, publishing houses face near-term incentives that are similar to those of an airline after a disaster: rather than looking for the root causes of the problem, and investing to fix them across a portfolio, it is in their near term interest to address the issue narrowly, perhaps sometimes assign blame elsewhere, and try to move forward as quickly as possible. But in the long-run, avoiding scrutiny is good neither for airline safety nor for the industry as a whole. As a result, the federal government created the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), to serve as a third-party that investigates airline accidents, assigning responsibility and recommending future corrective actions fearlessly. Perhaps the scholarly publishing sector needs an NTSB-like partner to conduct regular “post-mortems” so that the sector as a whole can learn lessons from each incident, address shortcomings pro-actively, avoid repeating the same mistakes again, and establish confidence that editorial practices and trustworthiness are continuously improving.
Today, the scholarly publishing sector looks to reestablish itself as a steward of the scholarly record and a trusted party to lead the transition to open science, and we need it in this type of role more than ever. Being entrusted with this role requires that publishers identify problems honestly and with humility, since trust is earned, or squandered, at a sector-wide level. The sector does not need triumphalism from leaders that enables their organizations to downplay festering problems. And, it does not need its boosters to selectively amplify concerns with preprints — when publishers should focus on their own shortcomings. The sector needs not only to ask for trust but also to make sure that it is continuously earning it every day.