A utopian future for scientific publishing

2016/01/31

Like many people, I think the current model of scientific publishing is out-dated and obsolescent. As my PhD advisor once said, “I think I’m post-publication.”

In our current system, scientists do work. They learn things, have new ideas, and form opinions. We have discussions at different levels of formality: informal meetings, lab/group meetings, invited talks, conference talks, and, at the very top, papers. Scientists package this diverse, uneven set of new knowledge and interpretations into uniform little boxes of publishable units.

I imagine a future that I think will have benefits over the present. In this utopia, all scientific publishing is through open-access, unedited venues like biorxiv. Scientists find papers of interest either though specific queries (like is already done via services like NCBI); browsing the “preprint” archives (which won’t be _pre_print since there won’t be able actual print) using other criteria like number of reads or downloads; or though “journals”. These new-age journals won’t actually bear the burden of publishing articles; they’ll bear the burden of sifting through the large amount of scientific literature and finding the work that is most interesting. There could still be for-profit businesses: in the same way that any source of critical information is valuable, information about which papers are worth reading will be valuable.

Peer review will no longer be a thing that happens once before the paper is published; it will be an iterative process where peer scientists can critique your preprint, authors can continually make updates, and readers can choose whether to agree or disagree with the critique.

This system avoids the tension between hype, quality, and relevance. You don’t have to wait to have an enormous set of experiments to get a paper in Nature, since Nature’s successor (one of these literature-sifters) can point to a whole body of work that your lab has done, rather than to individual papers.

To make this model work, enough interesting material will have to be published in the _PLoS_es and biorxiv’s so that Nature will have less and less material to report on in its Article and Reports sections and more and more to report on in its reviews of non-Nature material. It would also be critical that individual scientists feel that the quantity and quality of their work is sufficiently represented to their prospective employers and granting agencies under the new-age publication system.