Wednesday, September 7, 2011

We all perish even if we get published!

Publish or perish is a principle in academia, well if one wants to make a career in academia! However there have been major criticisms of the principle in the past decades. This essay is just the latest.

According to critics, the pressure to publish "has led to a situation where any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed" There has been a explosion of peer reviewed journals lately and I get emails almost daily asking me to submit papers to journals in which I have very little clue what the subject is all about. This is the price of being internationally published. True, publication in international journals will make the academic visible and with it his/her department and the university. However you get academic spam!

Perhaps, faculty tenure committees should just count the amount of junk/spam emails the tenure applicants receive rather than deal with citation indices, impact factors and all that jazz before they decide to give tenure! 

The academic Publish or Perish mindset has also generated the craze of publishing what we call in the Philippines "chop-chop" ISI papers, or science papers which build up the theory by installment!

It is estimated that about 1.3M scientific papers come out in a year in 24K journals. With all these high demands for review and redaction, there will be a consequential lack of peer reviewers (who are not paid any renumeration except perhaps, limited access to a suite of journals by a publishing house. I myself got a limited access to a bibliography software!). This almost guarantees that some bad science will fall through the peer review process. For some scientists with pet theories which are counter to the existing paradigm (but need to be published for promotion), there is a temptation to send the manuscripts to so called "off topic" journals. This is an example and it deals with what else?, climate change!  It caused the journal editor to tender his resignation.

Surely, market forces are determining where scientists should publish their papers. Obviously it will be a matter of time before publishing houses find a way to cash in by offering publication fees. With publication fees, your accepted papers become free access and they should give you academic visibility (and more academic spam!)

It is not yet clear how this state of affairs will retard science. But the social scientists have reason to believe this will eventually happen. Peer review failure is even evident in the few graphs that come out in a paper, like this one about acupuncture which came out in an esteemed British journal of general medical practice.

So how can this be remedied? One is open peer review which I have reviewed here. The author of the essay earlier linked in this post advocates self publishing with an open comment policy. In this way, science publishing may have to be done within the context of social media and networking although this would be more more focused and some safeguards must be in place. However there are sociological contexts to be considered. Academe inherited the hierarchical sins of  the Church. There is still the hierarchy of academia that must be considered with junior academics reluctantly reviewing the work of seniors who may be reviewing their next grant proposal! There is a proposal for anonymity which to my mind destroys the whole idea of open peer review since accountability is central to the idea.

But this proposal would require a sea change in how academe thinks. Academics whose egos have been popped since their papers were savagely reviewed by others cannot "unfriend" their reviewers without losing credibility!

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