"Perspective" in Chemistry & Engineering News Jan 29 issue, 2001, p 37-38.

(Pre-edited version)

Drowning in a Sea of Refereed Publications

Are there are too many journals, too many papers, even too many meetings these days? Most people seem to think so. Thereís a dilution effect. More is less.

As referees, we are constantly being pressured to turn more manuscripts around faster. Quality must be suffering. New journals are appearing regularly. Old ones die slowly. Libraries canít afford them. Editors are so overloaded that editorial input into the science is now very rare. Authors feel they have to publish something three times to get heard. The newest scientific unit, the LPU (Least Publishable Unit), is being overused. Exaggeration of novelty and significance is common. Readers seem overwhelmed.

Many scientists complain of being too busy to read the literature. This is not good. The importance and integrity of published work must remain paramount.

How did we get to this?

Certainly these days, with modern instrumentation and more practitioners, we are producing data at greatly accelerated rates. However, chemistry is no longer an infant science. Not all research requires full publication. The more predictable a result, the less it needs publishing. The case can be made for electronic archives for sound results that add to the storehouse of knowledge but contain insufficient conceptual advance to warrant publication as a paper. Improved search engines could result. Refereeing would still be required, however.

From my observations, commercial publishers are driving the problem, and have for a long time. Our Learned Societies have tended to compete by following along. With a quickness to start new journals, ego-directed invitations, and now (heaven forbid) unrefereed web preprints (Elsevier's latest play to our all-too-human weaknesses), publishers feed into scientistsí desires for publicity and extending their publication lists. We need counterbalancing inducements for restraint. We need quality not quantity.

Much has been written about the "crisis of access" to knowledge as libraries are forced to cancel subscriptions.1 Solutions have been suggested2 but there is a tendency to skirt issues of our own culpability and the active roles we must all take to remedy the problem. Via the internet, a revolution in scientific publishing is ongoing. We must take this opportunity to (a) make the literature free and (b) lower the volume by raising standards.

What can be done?

1. Learned Societies must take firm control of the literature, minimize the profit motive and be vigilant about maintaining standards. They have traditionally been better at this than commercial publishers. Let us declare the "market forces approach" to managing the journals an experiment now out of control. It is a dysfunctional market because the customers give away the product free and do not exercise buying preferences. If the budgets for chemistry journals were in the hands of Chemistry Departments rather than libraries, chemists would have been motivated to do something along time ago. These budgets need to be in the hands of the chemists now because, with electronic publishing, costs are being shifted to authors (preparation) and to readers (paper, printers). With significantly lower overall costs soon to be realized via electronic publishing (the ACS and RSC have done well moving fast in this direction), Learned Societies must move to find a business model that will make their journals free or nearly so, at least electronically. After all, authors do all the work, get the paper in near publication quality format, only to give it away free of charge (or even pay page charges) to a publisher who turns around and charges others pay-for-view. Only refereeing (also provided free), copy editing, and prestige are value-added. Within a few years, costs should be truly low for electronic editions. The print edition will become a luxury item. Once entire back issues become available online, research libraries will become obsolete - except for housing monographs.

2. Copyright. One deliciously seditious thought keeps occurring to me: why donít we conspire to stop giving away our copyright. Are we that desperate to publish? Publishers should ask only for a Consent to Publish. Lawyers and profit makers donít belong in the free knowledge business.

3. Authors: Let us all pause before we write a paper and examine all of our motivations for publishing. How closely do they match the ideals of the profession? Would a little self-restraint and self-refereeing help unburden the system? It is sobering to learn that Nobel Laureate R. B. Woodward published fewer than 90 papers in his illustrious career. Let us all stop sending our work to journals that gouge libraries. Attractive as it might seem, let us quickly abandon ideas of simply publishing on websites. To remove refereeing is to remove quality control. I think it is a mistake for Chemical Abstracts to begin abstracting unrefereed web preprints.3 Soon we will be drowning in a sea of unrefereed papers. Posting access to electronic reprint requests on personal websites (after refereeing) will help solve the problem of access.

4. Referees have real power (and responsibility) in this whole process. As reviewers, we must be thorough, have high standards, but never be unfair (or unkind). We can easily deny our (free) services to low quality, overpriced journals.

5. New Journals (and the flattery of being asked to serve as Editor or Editorial Board member, or to contribute a paper) should be resisted with great fortitude until necessity is certain. Libraries should continue to cancel subscriptions to high-priced, low-impact journals and deliberate long and hard about taking new ones. In chemistry, the crisis is more one of quality than access.

6. Funding agencies should make grants longer in duration (e.g. 5 years) and do away with annual reports. The one thing basic science needs is long term funding. The pressure to crank out LPUs will be diminished. With less frequent renewals, investigators may actually find time to read the literature. Grant renewals could be more accomplishment-based, with the emphasis on quality of course, by submitting five best papers for the referees (to actually read), and listing no more than five others. NSF is moving toward this.

7. Academic promotions should similarly be based on a very small number of scholarly papers. We need some real incentives for scholarship that is measured by quality and impact over time, rather than "promotion by page counting". We probably need promotion criteria to explicitly state that low quality publications will count against promotion. Editorships or Editorial Board memberships have become institutionalized criteria for academic promotion. What if such appointments to low quality journals also explicitly counted against promotion? In my experience, Departments are rather good at measuring scholarship. Other influences tend to subvert the promotion process.

8. Conference organizers should resist publishing Conference Proceedings for all but the most exclusive or unique meetings. They are misused to pad CVs, slip unrefereed data into the literature and publish things twice. Abstracts do not belong on one's publication list.

9. Research Mentors. Teach your students well. They tend to adopt your values. Set your standards high. No one, particularly the candidate, is done a favor when a weak Ph.D. is sent out. If we cut the bottom off the PhD class, a lot of things would improve -- chemist's salaries and job prospects, to name two. Many routine papers are written just to "help a student get a job". It all gets back to having standards.

Why should we worry about all this?

Quite simply, there's big $$ savings to be made if we act collectively to decrease the volume and get the profit out of publishing. Remember, publishers live off what they charge our libraries. Department Chairs should persuade their administrators to kick back to the Department the budget for voluntarily cancelled journals and print copies. Saved funds should be distributed to every faculty member to induce changes in behavior and to cover the expenses of electronic publishing that are increasingly passed on to authors and readers.

More importantly, we work in a noble, vibrant and centrally important profession. Integrity demands we aspire to the highest standards. In fact, the whole scientific enterprise relies on it. (Check out the movie The Insider where a chemist is the hero because of his integrity). Publication quality must remain the true measure of a scientist.

We tend to forget that students, the seed corn of our profession, are quite idealistic. If they start to feel collectively that the research enterprise is just a publication game, it will get very much harder to turn the best and brightest young minds on to science. There is already a fair amount of cynicism out there.

Finally, if the notion arises in the public arena that scientists are spinning their wheels, some politician is going to conclude (wrongly) that there is too much money in science. The consequences could be truly disastrous.

This is a very serious business.

Christopher A. Reed

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

University of California, Riverside

1. "A Question of Access" R. K. Johnson, www.arl.org/sparc

2. "Create Change" www.arl.org/create

3. Chem. Eng. News June 5, 2000, p 15.




Comments to: chris.reed@ucr.edu