The world of scientific publishing is
Journals are struggling to keep up
with the emerging digital public archives.
open letter to publishers
signed by some 30,000 scientists,
by the Soros Foundation.
The situation in theoretical physics heralds the things to come in
other fields. In the early 1990s the physicists were the first
to institutionalize electronic publishing at the
particle collider CERN
very World Wide Web was born.
science itself is a late-comer in this area. In theoretical physics,
priority in the
digital public archive
has become pretty much the
only thing that counts. Leading journals were forced to shorten the
subsequent peer review process down to 2-3 months (!), otherwise most
citations would go to digital preprints instead of journal papers.
More and more frequently,
journal editors are bidding for papers,
approaching authors of interesting preprints
and encouraging them to submit a version to their
journal, listing rapid review among the incentives.
Go to the
journal evaluation page
of Marcus Hutter
to insert your own experiences with journal review times.
Journals are quietly tolerating the numerous authors
providing direct access to their peer-reviewed journal papers via
their own WWW servers. Why? Because the success of a journal
is correlated with its impact factor (number of citations per article),
and the editors know exactly that online papers
on average are cited more frequently than others, for obvious reasons.
How important is the peer review system anyway? Rustum Roy & James
R. Ashburn (co-author of the 1:2:3 superconductor paper) recently wrote
(Nature 414:6862, p.394, Nov 2001): "...many leaders [...] such as
Nobel laureates [...] regard peer review as a great hindrance to good
science [...] An enormous amount of the best science has been and is run
without the benefit of this rubric, as is the worldwide patent system
[...] Everyone except the true believers know that it is your nearest
competitors who often `peer' review your paper [...] The enormous waste of
scientists' time, and the absolute, ineluctable bias against innovation,
are its worst offences. `Review by competitors' is an all-too-accurate
description of this system, wreaking devastation on papers and proposals
[...] ... should not repeat the old canards such as:" despite the
problems thrown up by peer review, no serious alternative has yet been
proposed." Nonsense. They have not only been proposed but have been in
regular use worldwide for a very long time. The users include the world's
largest research agency [...] and industrial research worldwide."
I omitted many statements - do read the full letter.
Of course, sometimes peer review can be extremely useful.
Authors often do thank the referees for their comments. On the other
hand, one beneficial and novel aspect of digital public archives are
cost-free time stamps in cases where peer review by rivals does become an
obstacle. Anonymous delay tactics seem more frequent than open priority
fights, which do occur not only in physics and biology/medicine (where
many are working on the same hot topic and often huge sums are involved)
but also in computer science and machine learning, and even in
math, "queen of sciences," and even among giants, e.g., Newton vs Leibniz.
It is a safe bet that soon almost all scientific publishing will
take place on the WWW, sometimes with peer review, sometimes
The benefits to scientists in developing countries
who cannot afford expensive journal subscriptions are obvious.