Will ESA’s News and Views Blog change the way that academics publish their ideas?

ESA’s News and Views Blog is something that is long overdue. Its mission to engage students is especially valuable. For academics in particular, however, the ESA Blog presents some intriguing and important implications and consequences for the process of publication. I would like to encourage some discussion of this.

My view is that the ESA Blog has the capacity to become an important domain for peer-reviewed, citable publication of commentaries and opinion pieces. In fact, the maximum potential value of the ESA Blog will not be realized, I don’t think, unless the Blog acquires an option for peer-reviewed accreditation status. Moreover, if the scientific community resists this assignment of peer-reviewed publication status, the ESA Blog is at risk of becoming easily abused and discredited, evolving eventually into a domain that facilitates academic misconduct. Here’s why:

Many academics are reluctant to discuss their really good ideas freely and openly e.g. in a traditional blog. When one has an idea that seems like it has potential to have a major impact on a field of study, many people are inclined to guard it and work it up as a paper for submission to a refereed journal thus providing a mechanism for earning credit, through citation, as the original author of the idea. Such papers usually end up in the Letters to the editor, Notes and comments, Ideas, Perspectives, Opinion or Forum sections of journals. Some academics, on the other hand, are less guarded and would be more willing to discuss their great ideas freely on the ESA blog. Here then is the potential problem: will the ESA Blog become a source for someone to mine’ (i.e. steal) new ideas and incorporate them for his own benefit as a Forum paper submission, e.g. to a journal like Oikos or Journal of Ecology? Opportunity, means and motive for such misconduct may present themselves, and the poor naïve ESA Blogger would never get cited as the original author of the idea.

Protection for the victim here is possible only if the ESA Blog receives peer-reviewed accreditation. This would also encourage academics to become fully engaged, and willing to share their most profound ideas freely on ESA Blog. The Blog would then become something that everyone would take very seriously, checking it on a daily or weekly basis to find out what the latest and hottest ideas are ideas to inspire students in today’s lecture, ideas to define a topic for a weekly journal club discussion, ideas for the graduate student who is developing a thesis proposal, or ideas for the journalist looking for hot-off-the-press newspaper headlines. Peer-reviewed accreditation should be possible by giving ESA Bloggers the option of having their postings assigned a DOI number linked to a downloadable, formatted PDF file. A nominal fee for this could be charged to the author, to help recover administrative and minor editorial costs. The registered PDF file could then be incorporated into Science Citation and other publication searching services. The published comments on your ideas from other Blog participants would serve as a peer-review process, thus making your blog a truly ‘refereed’ publication. Many are already arguing that this post-publication’ review is a better model for peer review especially for commentaries and opinion pieces and open-access on-line journals are already experimenting with this – e.g. PLoSone (http://www.plosone.org/).

By comparison, the peer review process in established, traditional journals is antiquated, depressingly inefficient, and promotes plodding conservatism that stifles the release of creativity and the very progress of science itself (see the recent opinion piece by Adam Rogers at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.09/start.html?pg=3 ).
Many people are just fed up, and are looking for more modern, rapid and efficient publication domains, especially ones that guard against the rampant elitism and old-boys’ networks that are promoted by reviewer anonymity, and where exclusivity is practiced by imposing silly printed page limits for journal issues in a modern world where no-one even reads from printed pages anymore, but instead from PDF files, largely. The ESA Blog has potential to provide an effective solution to this problem.

If the ESA Blog does indeed achieve status as a citable refereed publication, then there are different kinds of implications to consider: theft could also travel the other way e.g. will an anonymous referee steal an original idea from a manuscript that he has been asked to review for a traditional journal and submit this idea to the ESA Blog as his own? Opportunity, means and motive for this may, again, present themselves. The true original author of the idea would have to wait months to a year before his idea is published (especially in a traditional paper-based journal), only to discover that an opportunistic Blogger will already have received recognition for the idea, published perhaps in the previous year on ESA Blog as a creditable refereed publication. What recourse would the original author have? Not much. Because of the risks represented here, academics would be likely to reserve all of their novel ideas for the ESA Blog, and would scramble to submit them the instant the ideas have gelled. Other bloggers would respond and refine the idea (also receiving refereed publication credit as an option). The original poster of the idea could then feed off of this with subsequent ongoing dialogue with other Bloggers, and a whole new body of theory might materialize on the Blog within weeks, or even days (instead of the years usually required for theory development and refinement in paper-based traditional journals).

What might the future look like? I hope it involves the rapid dissemination and dialogue that the ESA Blog has potential to provide with peer-reviewed accreditation, thus speeding up the release of creativity, and speeding up the maturation of new theory all good things for the progress of science. The only losers would be the journal publishers that are worried about profits – because this new model would leave the traditional journals in the dust’, with an important but relatively boring future: they would be reduced to largely just a repository for data collection reports designed to test the ground-breaking ideas that never get published in these journals, because they would always appear first as an ESA Blog (instead of, for example, an Oikos Forum paper). ESA Blog would then get all of the big publicity, stealing huge chunks of citation rates away from the traditional journals.

Would this be a bad thing? Nope.

Contributed by Lonnie Aarssen, Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario

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2 Comments

  1. I certainly think that the web should be used to try new ways of communicating, and a blog would be a natural place to experiment. I think your suggestions are useful, but the problem with just giving blog entries DOIs is that there is no quality control: an awful entry would still appear as a publication. This then devalues the blog in the eyes of the average academic. Hence, they won’t bother to submit anything because they won’t get a publication in a well-respected journal (well, unless they tidy it up and send it to Oikos).

    Perhaps one solution would be to let people post drafts on the blog, which could then be published “properly” later (perhaps in a web journal – Ecological Perspectives?) if they pass some quality test. That way the initial idea is “out there”, and can be commented on and criticsed before a version is finalised: it opens up the possibility of commenters becoming co-authors, if their contributions make significant improvements. In contrast, bad ideas can be allowed to sink quietly into the google archives.

    The quality test would have to be formalised, if there were enough comments from people reading a submission perperly, then that would suffice, but 3 comments saying “Um, cool idea” might not be enough. At some point some editor(s) (no doubt part of the Evil Establishment) would have to make a decision about whether to publish.

    OK, let’s see how long it take someone to point out what’s wrong with my suggestions. If nobody does then it suggests that the blog model isn’t going to work!

    Bob

  2. I like Bob’s suggestion that drafts of ideas could be posted on the blog inviting feedback from potential co-authors. Usually many minds are better than one and this seems to be a highly efficient way to bring an idea to greater maturity.

    However, I still think that once the original author/blog poster felt that his/her idea was ready to designate as a citable publication, then there should be an easy/efficient process in place to arrange for this through a DOI assignment. I don’t think that this would present any more lack of “quality control” than already exists in the current system of peer review within established journals, which is far from perfect. The traditional peer-review system is already seriously lacking in quality control, and always has been. I think most would agree that a lot of “awful” publications have already appeared and continue to appear routinely within the current system of peer-reviewed journals, and this is easily quantified by the fact that the vast majority of published papers receive very low citation frequencies.

    The beauty of the blog system is that it is already designed to be self-assessing in a highly efficient manner. In other words the really bad ideas will indeed “sink quietly (and quickly) into the google archives” with little or no cost or inconvenience to anyone, whereas at the same time the really good ideas will have maximum visibility and will be poised to move rapidly to change the progress of science through exposure and dialogue exchange between bloggers. All of this can be easily quantified, with credit given where credit is due, by the citation frequency associated with the DOI assigned to the blog.

    I think that the inevitable benefit here – i.e. a dramatic increase in the rate of progress of science – far outweighs the accumulation of marginal, redundant or “awful” contributions. The latter are easy to ignore and dismiss in cyberspace with a mouse click. By comparison, it is far more difficult to ignore the massive volumes of published literature that has virtually never been cited but that currently weighs heavily as printed pages on the shelves of libraries around the world.

    Those that are worried principally about getting their idea published in a “well-respected journal” can wait the 12-24 months (after 2 or 3 rejections) to publish it there if they wish. But they may discover, while waiting impatiently for their paper to appear in print with volume and page numbers, that their idea has already been published earlier by a less-elitist colleague as a blog that carries just as much weight as a citable refereed publication. Given these alternatives, where do you think that the greatest minds will choose to publish their ideas?

    Lonnie Aarssen

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