Medical research: The shackles of scientific journals | The Economist

“Science should not, and need not, be shackled by journal publication. Three sensible reforms would ensure that researchers’ results could be communicated to more people more quickly, without any compromise on quality. Step one is for the organisations that finance research to demand that scientists put their academic papers, along with their experimental data, in publicly accessible ‘repositories’ before they are sent to a journal. That would allow other researchers to make use of the findings without delay. Those opposed to such ‘preprints’ argue that they allow shoddy work to proliferate because it has not yet been peer-reviewed. That may surprise physicists and mathematicians, who have been posting work to arXiv, a preprint repository, for more than 25 years with no ill effects. After peer review, research should also be freely available for all to read. Too much science, much of it paid for from the public purse, languishes behind paywalls.

Step two is to improve the process of peer review itself. Journals currently administer a system of organising anonymous peer reviewers to pass judgment on new research—a fact they use, in part, to justify their hefty subscription prices. But this murky process is prone to abuse. At its worst, cabals of researchers are suspected of guaranteeing favourable reviews for each other’s work. Better that reviewers are named and that the reviews themselves are published. The Gates foundation has announced its support for an online repository where such open peer review of papers takes place. The repository was launched last year by the Wellcome Trust, meaning that the world’s two largest medical charities have thrown their weight behind it. Others should follow (see article).

Fight for your right

Finally, science needs to stop relying so much on journal publication as the only recognised credential for researchers and the only path to career progression. Tools exist that report how often a preprint has been viewed, for example, or whether a clinical data set has been cited in guidelines for doctors. A handful of firms are using artificial intelligence to assess the scientific importance of research, irrespective of how it has been disseminated. Such approaches need encouragement. Journals may lose out, but science itself will benefit.”