How science is becoming increasingly more open
- Roma O. Konecky and Michele Avissar-Whiting
Publishing as a means of communicating original scientific contributions can be traced back to as far as the seventeenth century. In modern times, publications have become the primary scholarly output of academic research and are considered the cornerstone of scientific advancement. Today, traditional academic publications go through a process known as peer review where other experts in the field evaluate the work to determine its scientific quality and publishability. The principal role of peer-reviewed publications is to validate and share knowledge with others; however, these publications have also become the currency of academic career advancement in science. As such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on scientists to produce large quantities of manuscripts for publication in high impact peer-reviewed journals. The increased volume of academic research combined with the high value attributed to peer-reviewed publications has made academic publication an extremely profitable business. For decades, traditional peer-reviewed publications available only through high-cost subscriptions were the only way to access scholarly work, but recent movements toward open science have changed the landscape of academic publishing and have opened the doors to other means for scientists to share their work. This article discusses the changes in how scientific knowledge is shared, the motives behind these changes and their impact on scientific research.
The rise of commercial academic publishers
Sharing knowledge through the publication of research findings is critical to the progress of science. Since WWII, increased investment in university research programs has led to continued growth in science and consequently, the professionalization of academic research. With the professional employment of scientists, came the need to formalize career progression where published output became a useful way to judge scholarly success. To demonstrate their achievements, academic researchers are required to publish often, resulting in a surge of scientific output. The diminishing role of small society journals which could no longer absorb this increased demand, opened the door for large commercial publishers to step in.1 Commercial publishers had the resources to handle the dissemination of large quantities of research output, but as volumes continued to grow, journals became more numerous, the peer-reviewed publication process became sluggish, and subscriptions became increasingly expensive. Even large university libraries could not afford to subscribe to every journal. The inefficiency and inequality of access to scientific content gave rise to a growing discontent with the commercial academic publication system and motivated the open access movement.2 With the dawn of the internet, the ability to distribute content widely and at no cost was now possible.
How the internet changed academic publishing
The internet paved the way for a new publishing model known as open access. Digital article formats available through the internet dramatically reduced the cost of content distribution and enabled the formation of open access journals that made peer-reviewed articles available to readers for free. Despite the demand for freely accessible peer-reviewed content, acceptance of the open access model was slow; however, pressure from funders to make the research they support freely available and more impactful encouraged the acceptance of the open access model even among traditional commercial publishers.
Open access comes in various forms (most notably, gold, green, and hybrid access options). The gold model offers journal content for free immediately via the journal’s website. Some gold open access journals follow an “author pays to publish” model, while others publish at no cost to the author. The green model allows authors to post the published work elsewhere, such as on a repository or institutional website, but the content must still be paid for if accessed via the journal’s website. In the hybrid model, journals give authors the option to offer their article to readers for free for an additional publication fee paid by the authors.
While open access addresses reader accessibility issues associated with the traditional publishing model, other problematic issues remain. Like traditional publishers, open access journals also experience a glut of submissions resulting in a slow editorial process. Submissions to open access journals also confront the same limitations that peer-review and editorial review imposed on the traditional publishing system, namely the bias toward novel, positive findings. Although access to read the articles may be free, many open access journals shift the cost to access the content to the authors by requiring them to pay an additional fee, making publication in poorer countries untenable. Open access has also unfortunately opened the door to predatory journals. Predatory journals take advantage of an author’s need to publish by posing as legitimate journals, charging a publication fee without actually providing the service of peer-review validation in order to make a profit.
A preprint is a complete scientific manuscript uploaded to a free, public platform before it has undergone peer review. Although preprints have been around since 1991, the distribution of preprints has significantly increased across diverse disciplines in the past few years, likely – in part – as a response to researchers’ frustration with the legacy pre-publication peer review system. Because preprints are not peer reviewed, it is difficult to establish the manuscript’s scientific quality; however, a study evaluating quality differences between preprints and peer-reviewed articles showed that the differences were small.3 Nonetheless, the lack of peer review diminishes the perceived quality of preprints, and therefore preprints do not contribute significantly toward career advancement. While the issue of quality assessment is a significant disadvantage, preprints still offer many advantages over published articles.4 The primary advantage of preprints is the ability to share scientific results immediately at no cost to the reader or author. The significance of this advantage has never been more evident than with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, where preprints allowed researchers to rapidly communicate vital information. When a preprint is posted, it is issued a digital object identifier or DOI that permanently identifies the article on the web, allowing authors to cite their work to demonstrate productivity and establish primacy over their findings. DOIs also enable others to credit their work. By allowing authors to share their data with the world, preprints facilitate collaboration between researchers that may not have otherwise been possible. Preprint platforms also promote community interaction via article commenting. Feedback from others can help improve a study and accelerate the peer review process once the work is ready for journal submission. Unlike published articles, preprints have the advantage of being easily revised allowing authors to make corrections or updates as new data are collected. The ability to revise and correct content promotes transparency by allowing authors to present the most accurate description of their work. Another way preprints promote transparency is by providing a means for authors to share negative findings. Just because an experiment did not produce the expected result, does not mean that it holds no value; however, the unfortunate truth is that novel, statistically significant findings are more likely to be published. Sharing negative findings through preprints contributes to scientific progress by providing information that others can learn from and preventing others from wasting time, money, and resources by duplicating similar experiments.
Transparency, reproducibility, and the importance of minimum reporting standards
The ability to produce similar results each time an experiment is repeated enables us to validate experimental findings and is a key component of the scientific process; however, as the volume of scientific research has increased, so has the awareness that many scientific findings are not reproducible. Surveys indicate that this is a major concern among scientists5, and several studies across various disciplines6,7 have demonstrated that this is a widespread problem. Irreproducible research is a major concern because invalid claims slow scientific progress, waste resources, and contribute to the public’s mistrust of science; this growing concern has become known as the Reproducibility Crisis.
One of the major contributing factors to the Reproducibility Crisis is underspecified methods. Underspecified methods, found in many manuscripts, fail to provide critical details necessary to reproduce a study’s findings. Underspecified methods are like an incomplete recipe. For example, it is not enough to know that flour, water, and yeast are needed to make bread. Details regarding the quantities of each ingredient, baking procedure, etc. are necessary to ensure a consistent outcome. Similar to an incomplete recipe, an incomplete record of experimental procedures can lead to inconsistent outcomes that are difficult to interpret. Minimum reporting standards are one way to ensure that authors provide the details needed to reliably reproduce a study’s findings. Compliance with minimum reporting standards can be implemented in a variety of ways. One method used by journals is to provide authors with a checklist of items that must be reported prior to publication. Assessments, either by an independent professional that provides a comprehensive review and feedback or by an automated tool that provides a similar but less comprehensive check, are another method of ensuring compliance with established standards and can be useful to authors preparing manuscripts.
Increased investment in research has resulted in a significant increase in scientific output; however, for research to be useful it must be reported transparently and made freely accessible to the public. The internet paved the way for freely available scientific content by making open-access publication finally possible. While not a replacement for published works, preprints strengthen and complement traditional academic publishing by providing a more transparent representation of scientific research that allows updates and revisions and by providing opportunities for improvement via community feedback prior to publication. Preprints also overcome barriers of the editorial process and peer review by allowing rapid communication of scientific findings that are not biased by novelty or positive results. Minimum reporting standards have also improved the usefulness of research by promoting transparency and reproducibility, thereby improving research quality, and boosting trust in scientific findings. Widespread concerns about the accessibility and transparency of scientific content have significantly impacted how research is reported and shared. Together, open access, preprints, and the establishment of minimum reporting standards have made significant strides toward making the communication of research faster, more equitable, more transparent, and more useful.
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About The Author:
Roma O. Konecky, PhD
Roma Konecky is an Editorial Quality Advisor for the preprint platform, Research Square. For over four years, she has provided scientific and editorial expertise to help support authors and journal operations. As lead reviewer for the Research Square Preprint Badge certifications, Roma provides recommendations to authors to ensure manuscripts meet established standards in scientific reporting to promote the transparency and reproducibility of studies published on the platform. Roma holds a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied the role of the prefrontal neurons in multi-item working memory using electrophysiological techniques in non-human primates.
Michele Avissar-Whiting, PhD
Michele Avissar-Whiting is the Editor in Chief at Research Square, a preprint platform that launched at the end of 2018. Michele has been with Research Square for eight years, previously serving in a number of other capacities, including as the Operations Director for the platform. She holds a PhD in Medical Science from Brown University.