October 14th, 2019

6 problems of academic publishing


Whether we like it or not, manuscript writing and publishing is an important part of the academic career.

Our achievements are evaluated based on the quality and quantity of research we publish. Therefore, in order to succeed in academia, you have to not only be passionate about your research topic but also passionate about communicating your findings in writing. Yet what is one of the most frustrating and stressful aspects of an academic career?

Academic publishing...

We started Refereed to offer the scientific community an alternative approach to academic publishing, the one that will make it smooth, transparent, rewarding, and dare I say, pleasant. There are a plethora of problems with the traditional system of scholarly publishing. In a series of upcoming posts, I will discuss each and every one of them and present the solutions we came up with. But here, I would like to outline these issues from a bird’s-eye view perspective.

1. Paywall

Let’s address the elephant in the room first. The paywall is the most discussed pain point of academic publishing. Generally speaking, the paywall refers to a system of online content distribution, in which the access to the content is restricted via a paid subscription. Scientific journals adopted this business model to scholarly papers. And while the paywall is justified for the distribution of commercial content, it is completely inappropriate for the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Access to published research is essential for the advancement of science. Therefore, university libraries and research laboratories have no choice but to purchase journal subscriptions. And so the scientific community spends taxpayers’ money to access the knowledge it generates. Isn’t it ridiculous?

2. Reverse paywall

Let's not forget that the paywall acts in both ways. In many journals, researchers have to pay to publish (or perish). This money comes from research funding, which in turn is supplied by taxpayers.

3. Remuneration of peer review

The value of a scientific paper consists of two essential components:

  • the scientific study itself performed by the authors and
  • the input from expert referees during peer review.

The majority of publishers don’t pay reviewers and editors for their participation in peer review and get the added value of their job for free. Apart from ethical considerations, it causes other additional problems.

Firstly, reviewers and editors are also regular members of the research community. When faced with the peer review assignment, they have to postpone their direct responsibilities and spend salaried time for this task. And so this aspect of the academic publishing process is laid on the shoulders of taxpayers again.

Secondly, the lack of incentives for the referees causes a lack of motivation from their side in return. Regardless of how noble the goal of peer review is an adequate appreciation for any performed quality job is essential for human beings. That is psychology.

4. Efficiency of peer review
Researchers are not happy with how peer review works

Most researchers are not happy with how peer review works nowadays. It is slow due to a lack of motivation from referees. Reviewers’ anonymity often causes unprofessional behavior. Lack of rewards decreases their perceived responsibility even further. The communication between all the parties involved in peer review is ineffective and slow. It is not uncommon for the system to be abused with biased reviews.

5. Manuscript management

Now, this is a technical problem. There is no universally accepted format for scholarly articles. Different academic journals impose completely different requirements on the formatting and structure of the manuscript. Most of the journals require authors to abide by the formatting rules already at the submission stage, before the formal review. As a consequence, authors have to choose a target journal before they start writing. If the paper is rejected they have to reformat it for another journal.

After submission, things don’t get smoother. After each round of peer review, authors have to go back to their editing software of choice, apply the corrections and repeat the submission process. Communication between editor, reviewers, and authors is often carried out by email slowing down the process even more. Modern web technologies would easily allow version control for the manuscripts, in-place peer review, and instant interaction between the parties drastically speeding up the process.

6. Replication studies
Replicated science is good science

Replication studies are not welcomed by traditional publishers. Unfortunately, the journals act like they are distributing commercial content rather than scientific knowledge: hype and novelty are given higher priority than value. As a consequence, the overall quality of published research decreases. False positives in science are inevitable but instead, our publishing system gives a false impression that whatever the researchers try works. Public replication studies would allow the scientific community to focus only on what matters in further research.

Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments. It is likely that this post will be updated and expanded in the future based on your feedback.

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