Nature recently published an interesting news item reporting that anyone submitting to a new section of the journal RNA Biology will be required to also submit a Wikipedia-ready page summarising the work. Once the work has been peer-reviewed the summary will be published in Wikipedia.
As Nature explained, the initiative is the result of a collaboration between the journal and theRNA family database (Rfam) consortium led by the UK Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton.
"The novelty is that for the first time it creates a link between Wikipedia and traditional journal publishing, with its peer-review element," Alex Bateman, who co-heads the Rfam database, told Nature. The aim, he added, is to boost the quality of the scientific content on Wikipedia while using the entries to update the Sanger database.
RNA (Ribonucleic acid) is a type of molecule that consists of a long chain of nucleotide units. It is very similar to DNA, but differs in a few important structural details.
The hope is that the scientific community will add to the Wikipedia page. These additions can then be fed back into the Sanger database.
Comments on the Nature article were mixed, with some expressing concern about vandalism, and others wondering whether the idea would fall foul of Wikipedia's "no original research" rule.
But Sean Eddy, a computational biologist at the Janelia Farm Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Virginia, explained: "the workflow is that the peer-reviewed article in RNA Biology comes first, defining a new RNA family or redefining an old one. The Wikipedia page appears when the article appears (with reference to the article). The Wikipedia page is then the base for additional encyclopaedic information to be collected for the new (or revised) RNA sequence family."
And in response to the fears of vandalism, Bill Wedemeyer of Michigan State University, commented, "Over the past two years, I and some of my students at Michigan State University have carried out an analysis of the coverage, quality and stability of the scientific articles on the English Wikipedia. We've analysed hundreds of randomly sampled articles from the basic sciences, and have had roughly 100 articles reviewed by tenured professors expert in the field. Our data, being written up for publication, do not support [the hypothesis] that the RNA articles will degenerate into vandalism-riddled nonsense."
We can surely expect to see more and more initiatives like this.
Released on Wednesday, the Nature article published a number of allegations about M. S. El Naschie, including allegations about his publishing activities, his claimed affiliations, and the quality of the peer review undertaken at CS&F.
The Scholarly Kitchen post states, "It is the view of the Editorial Board that the article contains serious errors of fact as well as libelous material". And it predicts that there will "either be a retraction and an apology from Nature and the Journalist [who wrote the article] or a court case in Germany and in England."
A number of obvious questions arise, not least why, if this is really a response from the Editorial Board of Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, it has been made under an alias, and on a blog.
However, the post does underline the necessity for the Editorial Board to respond to events, and the best way of doing so would be by means of a collective statement. Importantly, that statement will need to have real names attached to it, and it will need to be made via an official channel — Elsevier's media department perhaps?
With anonymous posts now appearing that claim to speak for the Board, and the noise about the affair growing in the blogosphere, let's hope such a statement comes soon. As it is, we are witnessing more questions arise each day, and very little in the way of answers.
More importantly, Elsevier itself needs to respond, and to answer the many questions arising from the affair. If it doesn't do so, and soon, the research community will undoubtedly reach its own conclusions.
In fact, it is already doing so: Writing on the Uncommon Ground blog, for instance, Kent Holsingerconcludes "Whether Elsevier admits it or not, their oversight of this journal appears to have been non-existent. It appears they were more interested in the $4250 in annual subscription fees El Naschie's journal garners than in ensuring 'that all published reports of research have been reviewed by suitably qualified reviewers', as required by the Committee on Publication Ethics."
On Wednesday I received an email from an Elsevier spokesperson informing me that M. S. El Naschie would be retiring as editor of CS&F in the New Year, and indicating that someone from the company would speak to me in more detail about the controversy by the end of the week. I have my questions ready; I wait to hear back from Elsevier.
Update 16th March 2010: CS&F has been relaunched with two new co-editors-in-chief, a new editorial board and refined aims and scope.
The debate, which has primarily taken place on the n-Category Café (a community blog on math, physics, and philosophy), was summed uprecently by Phil Davis on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.
An Elsevier spokesperson informed me today that El Naschie plans to step down as Editor-in-Chief, and his retirement will be announced in the first issue of CS&F in 2009. "[A]s a former editor El Naschie will no longer be involved in editorial decision making for the journal," the Elsevier spokesperson commented.
I hope to speak in more depth to someone at Elsevier in the near future.
Update on Thursday 27th: Yesterday I sent a list of questions to the CS&F email address asking M.S. El Naschie to comment. I received a reply signed by someone called C. Cole saying that the questions were extremely easy to answer, but that they would be sent to the editorial board.
When Elsevier subsequently informed me that M. S. El Naschie would be retiring in the New Year I emailed the CS&F account again. C. Cole replied: "Elsevier is a large organization. Are you sure of this information or is it hearsay or rumour you have just picked up from somewhere as many other rumours which some have been intentionally spreading?"
I replied today that I had received the information in writing [email] from Elsevier, and requested C. Cole if he could ask M. S. El Naschie to confirm that he will be retiring. I also asked if he could answer the questions I sent yesterday, and whether it would be possible to speak to M. S. El Naschie by telephone. I have yet to receive a reply.
Nature has published an article about M. S. El Naschie.
Update 16th March 2010: CS&F has been relaunched with two new co-editors-in-chief, a new editorial board and refined aims and scope.
Does Open Access (OA) publishing mean having to accept lower-quality peer-reviewed journals, as some claim, or can we expect OA to improve quality? How good are the current tools used to measure the quality of research papers in any case, and could OA help develop new ones?
I started puzzling over the question of quality, after a professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, Eric Bittner, posted a comment on Open & Shut in October. Responding to an interview I had done with DESY's Annette Holtkamp, Bittner raised a number of issues, but his main point seemed to be that OA journals are inevitably of lower quality than traditional subscription journals.
With OA advocates a little concerned about the activities of some of the new publishers — and the quality of their journals — we need perhaps to ask the question: could Bittner be right?
"The problem with many open-access journals is a lack of quality control and general noise," Bittner wrote. "With so many journals in a given field, each competing for articles — most of which are of poor quality — it's nearly impossible to keep up with what's important and sort the good from the bad."
He added, "I try to only publish in journals with high impact factors. For grant renewals, promotion and annual merit raises, an article in PRL or Science counts a lot more than 10 articles in a no-named journal."
The Impact factor
Like most researchers, Bittner appears to believe that the best tool for measuring the quality of published research is the so-called journal impact factor (IF, or JIF). So apparently does his department. Explained Bittner:
"[O]ur department scales the number of articles I publish by the impact factor of the journal. So, there is little incentive for me to publish in the latest 'Open Access' journal announced by some small publishing house."
What Bittner didn't add, of course, is that some OA journals have an IF equal to, or better than, many prestigious subscription journals. The OA journal PLoS Medicine, for instance, has an impact factor of 12.6, which is higher than the 9.7 score of the widely-regarded British Medical Journal (BMJ).
PLoS Biology, meanwhile, has an impact factor of 13.5.Another point to bear in mind is that many OA journals are relatively new, so they may not have had sufficient time to acquire the prestige they deserve, or an IF ranking that accurately reflects their quality — not least because there is an inevitable time lag between the launch of a new journal and the point at which it can expect to acquire an impact factor score, and the prestige that goes with that.
As OA advocate Peter Suberput it in the September 2008 issue of the SPARC Open Access Newsletter (SOAN), "If most OA journals are lower in prestige than most TA [Toll Access, or subscription] journals, it's not because they are OA. A large part of the explanation is that they are newer and younger. And conversely: if most TA journals are higher in prestige than most OA journals, it's not because they are TA."
In short, if some OA journals appear to be of lower quality than their TA counterparts, this may simply be a function of their youth, and say very little about their intrinsic value.
In order to properly assess Bittner's claim we also need to ask how accurate impact factors are, and what they tell us about the quality of a journal.
Devised by Eugene Garfield over fifty years ago, a journal impact factor is calculated by dividing the number of citations the papers published in a journal receive in a given year by the total number of articles published in the two previous years.
Journal impact factors are published each year in the Journal Citation Reports — produced by ISI, the company founded by Garfield in 1960 (and now owned by the multinational media company Thomson Reuters). The scores are then pored over by journal publishers and researchers.
How much does an IF tell us about the quality of a journal? Not a lot, say critics — who believe that it is too blunt an instrument to be very useful. Moreover, they argue, it is open to misuse. As the Wikipedia entry puts it, "Numerous criticisms have been made of the use of an impact factor. Besides the more general debate on the usefulness of citation metrics, criticisms mainly concern the validity of the impact factor, how easily manipulated it is and its misuse."
We also need to be aware that ISI's Master Journal List consists of 15,500 journals, which is only a subset of the circa 25,000 peer-reviewed journals published today.
Importantly, the impact factor was designed to measure the quality of a journal, not the individual papers it publishes, and not the authors of those papers (Even though the IF is based on the number of citations to individual papers). This means that researchers and their papers are judged by the company they keep, not their personal quality.
Since the papers in a journal tend to attract citations in a very uneven fashion, the IF is even less satisfactory than it might at first appear to be — certainly in terms of measuring the contribution an individual researcher has made to his subject, or his value to an institution. As Per O Seglen pointed out in the BMJ in 1997, "Use of journal impact factors conceals the difference in article citation rates (articles in the most cited half of articles in a journal are cited 10 times as often as the least cited half)."
In other words, given the significant mismatch between the quality of any one paper and the other papers published alongside it, a journal impact factor says little about particular authors or their papers.
This means that when Bittner's department scale his articles against the IF of the journals in which he has published they are conflating his personal contribution to science with the aggregate contribution that he and all the authors published alongside him have made.
In reality, therefore, Bittner is being rewarded for having his papers published in prestigious journals, not for convincing fellow researchers that his work is sufficiently important that they should cite it. Of course, it is possible that his papers have attracted more citations than the authors he has been published alongside. It is equally possible, however, that he has received fewer citations, or even no citations at all. Either way, it seems, Bittner's reward is the same.
It is also possible to count an author's personal citations, and calculate his or her own personal "citation impact" (along perhaps with something like an h-index), but Bittner's post did not say that this is something his department does.
In any case, as the Wikipedia entry indicates, traditional citation counting is controversial in itself. Critics — including Garfield himself — have pointed to a number of problems, not least the noise generated by negative citations (where papers are cited not in order to recommend them, but to draw attention to their flaws) and self-citation. We also know that researchers routinely cite close colleagues, either in a "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" fashion, or perhaps in the hope that if they flatter their seniors they might win powerful new allies.
Suber sums it up in this way: "IFs measure journal citation impact, not article impact, not author impact, not journal quality, not article quality, and not author quality, but they seemed to provide a reasonable surrogate for a quality measurement in a world desperate for a reasonable surrogate."
Or at least they did, he adds, "until we realised that they can be distorted by self-citation and reciprocal citation, that some editors pressure authors to cite the journal, that review articles can boost IF without boosting research impact, that articles can be cited for their weaknesses as well as their strengths, that a given article is as likely to bring a journal's IF down as up, that IFs are only computed for a minority of journals, favouring those from North America and Europe, and that they are only computed for journals at least two years old, discriminating against new journals."
In the circumstances, it is surprising that researchers and their institutions still place so much stress on the IF. They do so, suggests Suber, because it makes their jobs so much easier. "If you've ever had to consider a candidate for hiring, promotion, or tenure, you know that it's much easier to tell whether she has published in high-impact or high-prestige journals than to tell whether her articles are actually good."
For OA journals this is bad news, since it leaves them vulnerable to the kind of criticism levelled at them by Bittner.
However, the good news is that, in the age of the Web, new toolsfor measuring research quality can be developed. These are mainly article-based rather than journal-based, and they will provide a far more accurate assessment of the contribution an individual researcher is making to his subject, and to his institution.
The Web, says OA advocate Stevan Harnad, will allow a whole new science of "Open Access Scientometrics" to develop. "In the Open Access era," he explains, "metrics are becoming far richer, more diverse, more transparent and more answerable than just the ISI JIF: author/article citations, author/article downloads, book citations, growth/decay metrics, co-citation metrics, hub/authority metrics, endogamy/exogamy metrics, semiometrics and much more. The days of the univariate JIF are already over."
In order to exploit these tools effectively, however, the research corpus will first need to be freely available on the Web (i.e. Open Access), not locked behind subscription firewalls. Consequently, the scholarly community at large will need to embrace OA before it can hope to benefit greatly from them.
It means, however, that in addition to making all research freely available, OA promises to make it much easier to evaluate and judge the quality of published research, along with the authors of that research.
The main challenge, of course, is to persuade researchers to make their papers OA in the first place!
For those still in doubt there are two other factors to consider. First, it is not necessary to wait until suitable OA journals emerge in your area before embracing OA. It is possible to publish a paper in a TA journal and then self-archive it in a subject-based or institutional repository (a practice referred to as "Green OA"). This allows you to embrace OA immediately, and without having to forego a desire to publish in a high-impact journal. Since most TA publishers now permit self-archiving this means that researchers can usually have their cake and eat it.
Second, whether they choose to self-archive or to publish in an OA journal ("Gold OA"), researchers can expect to benefit from the so-called "citation advantage". This refers to the phenomenon in which papers made OA are cited more frequently than those hidden behind a subscription paywall.
In a paper published in the BMJ in 2004, for instance, Thomas V Perneger reported, "Papers that attracted the most hits on the BMJ website in thefirst week after publication were subsequently cited more oftenthan less frequently accessed papers. Thus early hit countscapture at least to some extent the qualities that eventuallylead to citation in the scientific literature."
This suggests that free early availability of a paper leads to greater recognition in the long run. While the citation advantage is not (yet at least) a precise science, Suber reports that OA articles are cited "40-250% more often than TA articles, at least after the first year."
Open Access scientometrics also raise the intriguing possibility that if research becomes widely available on the Web the quality of papers published in OA journals may start to overtake, not lag, the quality of papers published in TA journals.
Why? Because if these tools were widely adopted the most important factor would no longer be which journal you managed to get your paper published in, but how other researchers assessed the value of your work — measured by a wide range of different indicators, including for instance when and how they downloaded it, how they cited it, and the different ways in which they used it.
Given that this would provide a much more accurate assessment of quality, scientists could be expected to spend more time perfecting their research, and writing up the results as accurately as possible, and less time trying to second-guess what the gatekeepers of a few select journals deemed suitable for publication. In short, we could expect to see a growing improvement in the quality of published papers.
Moreover, since these new tools would require that research was freely available on the Web papers published in TA journals would not benefit from them.
Indeed, if research began to be judged by the value of the cargo (the research paper) not the perceived value of the vehicle used to distribute it (the journal), scholars might even prefer to publish in what Bittner dismisses as, "the latest 'Open Access' journal announced by some small publishing house". After all, trying to get a paper published in a prestigious journal is a difficult process, and one that frequently comes with the indignity of being judged by establishment figures resistant to new ideas.
Certainly many would now agree that traditional peer review is a far from flawless process, and one that often leads to good papers being rejected. As The Scientistpointed out in 2006, reviewers are known to often "sabotage papers that compete with their own ... [send strong papers] ... to sister journals to boost their profiles, and editors at commercial journals are too young and invariably make mistakes about which papers to reject or accept."
True, researchers might still feel the need to continue publishing in prestigious journals in order to benefit from the greater visibility that they provide. But as Web 2.0 features like tagging and folksonomies become more prevalent, and as the number of institutional repositories grows, it will be possible to obtain visibility by other means.
Many a slip
That's the theory. But there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. Leaving aside the need for OA to prevail first (and there remains no shortage of opponents to OA), the above scenario could only be realised if research institutions and funders embraced the new evaluation tools.
For the moment, as Bittner's experience demonstrates, university promotion and tenure (P&T) committees remain addicted to the journal impact factor, as do research funders. And as Suber points out, so long as funding agencies and P&T committees continue to reward researchers who have a record of publishing in high-prestige journals, "they help create, and then entrench, the incentive to do so."
For the foreseeable future, therefore, sceptical voices will surely continue to argue that OA journals lack quality control, and so are best avoided.
Fortunately, this does not prevent individual researchers from self-archiving. And by doing so they will not only make their research free to all but, like Ray Frost, start to enjoy the benefits of the citation advantage.
Of more immediate concern, however, is the danger that the actions of a few OA publishers might yet demonstrate that OA journals do indeed publish lower quality research than TA journals. And unless the OA movement addresses this issue quickly it could find that the sceptical voices begin to grow in both volume and number. That is a topic I hope to examine at a later date.
In my next post, however, I want to look more closely at peer review.