This post is motivated by an article by Michael S. Rosenwald in the April 6, 2016 edition of the Washington Post titled,”Thief? Or Liberator of Knowledge from the Tyranny of Profit?” The title of this healthy memory post should indicate my position on the title of the article. The article is about a 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan Alexandra Elbakyan who is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles.
The basis for the posts I publish on this blog come from books I have purchased. There are additional magazines and journals that I receive on the basis of professional organizations to which I belong and to which I pay dues. Sometimes I find an interesting article from a source to which I do not have free access, but discover an unjustifiable fee to purchase the article.
It is a tad ironic that one of the purposes of these scientific organizations to which I belong is to disseminate scientific knowledge. Yet they charge for the dissemination of this knowledge, and these publications constitute a significant part of the income for these organizations.
At one time this publication process might have been justifiable when it was based on paper. However, in the digital age this publication process is no longer justifiable. There are annoyingly long publication delays in the print medium, whereas the dissemination of information should be fast in this new digital age.
One substantial delay is the review process in refereed journals. This is a matter of independent reviewers reviewing articles and providing input to the journal to determine if the article should be published. I’ve participated in this process both as an article submitter and an article reviewer. Often the agreement among the reviewers is not high. I’ve reviewed articles that I think made a substantive contribution to the field, yet the articles were rejected on the basis of what I regarded to be minor issues. I don’t believe that it is ever possible to write an article to which there are no objections. The nature of research requires certain compromises and if these compromises are raised high enough, the article is rejected.
I am of the strong opinion that this review process is unnecessary. Usually I can quickly tell whether an article is worth my time. And I am curious as to what articles I am not seeing due to an unjustified rejection of a good article. I think the strongest advocates of article reviews are tenured faculty members who must make judgments as to whether junior faculty member should be granted tenure. The review process allows them to count the numbers of articles published in refereed journals. Otherwise, there would be the necessity to read an evaluate articles written by these junior faculty members.
Actually, there is a much larger problem that was documented in epidemiologist Ioannidis’s landmark article “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” (PLOS Medicine, 2, 3124. Doi:101371/journal pmed, 0020124, 2005). Subsequent research has confirmed his conclusion. Many articles followed (see the AAA Tranche of Subprime Science (Gelman and Laken, 2014). The problem hit the popular press with the October 19th cover of the Economist broadcasting HOW SCIENCE GOES GOES WRONG (see the healthy memory blog post “Most Published Research Findings are False.”)
I am amazed that this conclusion has received so little public attention. It means that should your physician give you advice or recommend certain medications or procedures, he is most likely flying by the seat of his pants. Even if is based on published research, there is a better than even chance that the research is in error.
Moreover, it is this insidious paper publication process that underlies most of this problem. Journals pride themselves on high rejection rates, yet many of the rejected articles might have been failures to replicate. The problem is further exacerbated by researchers who do not even bother to submit negative findings to journals because they know that these articles are likely to be rejected. This is known as the “file drawer” problem which refers to important results that never see the light of day and end up in the file drawer.
So it is clear to me that this conventional publication process needs to be made electronic with all articles being available and all the data on which the articles are based need to be made available. Most of this research is based on government funding. So it is especially infuriating that I cannot get articles or data for which I have already paid.
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