Internet complicates peer-review concept

As it has been for literally hundreds of years, reports on research in all kinds of scientific fields, after being sent to peers for review, are edited, typeset, printed out, and mailed off to libraries and research institutions.

As it has been for literally hundreds of years, reports on research in all kinds of scientific fields, after being sent to peers for review, are edited, typeset, printed out, and mailed off to libraries and research institutions.

But research is also now increasingly posted online, either in its rawest form or as a final product created after weeks or months of scientific and editorial review, with access granted for a (sometimes hefty) fee.

This online distribution system, made available only within the past few years - but increasingly what Internet-literate researchers have come to expect - is making scientific research more widely available than ever before. But should articles based on taxpayer-funded research be posted for free, in the interest of spreading knowledge?

This is a debate currently rocking the scholarly publishing world, as library associations and taxpayer-advocate groups call for articles based on such research to be posted free online.

It seems to make sense: Research is funded by taxpayers, so everyone should be able to view the final write-ups, right? Certainly, everyone benefits from wider distribution of scientific research, which is passed along not only by peer-reviewed journals, but also through the consumer and business media, which pick up on scientific reports and abstract them for the masses.

"The only way research investments are leveraged to their fullest is to have as many people as possible have access to results," notes Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly & Academic Resources Council (SPARC).

But just as newspapers are struggling to develop new business models in the face of the Internet, where distribution is worldwide, instant, and often free, this notion of making taxpayer-funded research "open" threatens to disrupt - or, according to some publishers, possibly destroy - the world of peer-reviewed journals.

SPARC, which is backed by the Association of Research Libraries, and other like-minded groups argue that providing a window of six months or so from publication to posting online of journal articles gives publishers time to make money. Not surprisingly, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) disagrees. Posting raw research is fine, it says, but the editorial process of peer review is a "value add" not covered by taxpayer funds. Nor, they say, is the cost of developing a journal's "brand," on which people at least in part base assessments of the credibility of research findings.

"Who are they to say how the publishing business works?" asks Marc Brodsky, former chair of the executive council of AAP's professional and scholarly publishing division. "They're trying to tilt the market toward a model of publishing that must depend on some revenue other than selling subscriptions, to advertising or whatever."

Along with hiring Dezenhall Resources to shape its strategic messaging on this issue (as Nature.com reported earlier this year), AAP employs lobbyists to counter the lobbying and grassroots campaigns by opposing advocacy groups. Those groups are pressing for public access by Congress and government agencies like the National Institutes of Health, which has already instituted a voluntary public access policy.

Whether concerns about the future of peer-reviewed journals are well-founded, such publications are simply one of many different types of publishing being shaken up by the rise of the Internet. SPARC's Joseph notes that the academic gold standard for research is the garnering of as many citations by other researchers as possible and that researchers have some choice about where to publish articles, which sounds ominous for the future of journals disinclined to open access.

Plus, Brodsky notes: "The Web creates an illusion for people that everything is free. So, some people think if it's on the Web, it should be free, period."

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