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“Redefining the peer-review literature”

December 14, 2009 Filed under Blog, Featured, Potpourri, Reviewing, Writing 

“I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is !” –Phil Jones, in an email

This quote is one of many that people are using from the stolen emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit to show that climate activist scientists are politicizing the international IPCC process to suppress publication of research by scientists skeptical of human-induced climate change.  Amid all the public commentary over these emails, what hasn’t been as widely discussed is that ever since the internet became a tool for mass communication, scientists have been redefining what the peer-review literature is.

The prime example is the rise of open-access journals.

The Pillars of Open Access

The Pillars of Open Access.

For libraries that subscribe to thousands of journals, some as expensive as several thousand dollars a year, open-access journals are a godsend, as they no longer have to pay for subscriptions or find the shelf space for the bound volumes.

Just as the internet has created a global marketplace for products and services, scientists, too, have seen what unfettered access to research, publications, and viewpoints has done for their careers.  Articles appearing in open-access journals are downloaded and cited more often.  Because many open-access journals are associated with professional societies and even nonaffiliated groups of people, open-access journals are a way to fight the high costs of commercial publishing and get alternative viewpoints heard.

Three examples illustrate the power of open access.  First, the most prestigious journal in atmospheric science did not even exist ten years ago.  The open-access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics rocketed past numerous other established journals to rank first in impact, a mere four years after its founding, with a lead it continues to extend.

The second example is that open-access journals can be more available to the needs of its authors.  Because an open-access journal that I helped cofound (Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology) was aimed at getting more weather forecasters to publish their research—research that might be rejected from other journals as requiring too much effort to revise—we reviewers and editors are more likely to take the time to help first-time authors with good ideas improve their manuscripts and get their research published.

A final example is a personal one and comes from just a few weeks ago.  Intrigued by a news article I saw discussing new fossil crocodile discoveries showing that not all crocs were short stocky beasts—some had long legs and different-shaped snouts resembling boars, rats, and ducks—I went searching for more information.  The journal article was published in a journal that I had not heard of before ZooKeys.  When I searched for ZooKeys, I found that it was an open-access journal, and I was able to download the whole 143-page article.  Thus, I was able to read more about the details of the specific fossils that defined these new species.

Open-access journals are just one means by which scientists have redefined what the peer-review literature is.  Some online journals allow comments via public fora, not only for published articles but even manuscripts undergoing peer review.  At other journals, reviewers’ names are known to the authors of the manuscripts (as opposed to the usual anonymity of reviewers).  These two innovations benefit science by making the review process more transparent, and can even correct errors after publication.  In doing so, redefining the peer-review literature does not necessarily mean restricting communication of new scientific results.

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  1. […] Schultz will be leading a workshop on “Eloquent Professional Communication: Customer-Oriented Writing and High-Impact Presentations” at the Annual Meeting on Wednesday (10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m., B212), in which he will discuss some key communications issues facing many scientists, such as knowing one’s audience, writing concisely and precisely, using Powerpoint effectively, and creating slides for presentations. He’ll also explore what the East Anglia e-mail controversy can tell us about effective communication. (Some of Dave’s initial thoughts on the subject can be found here and here.) […]



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