View Full Version : President's Message - The Future of Academic Publishing

Peter Cavanagh
04-14-1997, 02:21 PM
ISB Presidential Message
March 1997

Dear ISB Members:

I want to start by thanking all those who responded to my initiative at the
end of 1996 to provide materials for colleagues in economically developing
countries. The response to this effort was a rich haul of journals, books,
and some equipment which council member Sandra Olney is in the process of
distributing to laboratories throughout the world. This will be an ongoing
program of the Society and I urge you to keep the material flowing to
Sandra (olneys@qucdn.queensu.ca). A summary of what has been accomplished
under this initiative will appear soon on our Web page

As regular readers of this column will know, it is my custom to pose a
question each three months that might cause the reader some degree of
professional introspection. My question for this quarter is "How will
academic publishing be defined and practiced in the next decade?"

This question can be answered from two different and potentially
conflicting viewpoints: publishing to disseminate knowledge and publishing
to obtain academic tenure. Ideally, there should be no tension between
these points of view but, in practice, there is an enormous gulf. As you
might expect, this issue is intimately involved with the Internet and the
current explosion of easily available information. Let me pause to point
out that I have used two words in this paragraph that should not be
considered synonyms: knowledge and information. I have a friend who avoids
the Internet with a passion because, he declares, "I don't need more
information - I need more knowledge." And herein lies the problem: in the
age of the Internet who will judge whether we as academics are contributing
to knowledge or to information? The former would certainly qualify as a
justifiable scientific endeavor (and would, therefore, be potentially
tenurable), while the latter probably would not.

Traditionally, new contributions to knowledge have been scrutinized by the
peer review system. Refereed journals are the safeguard that the
scientific community has developed to impose quality control. Although
some notable gaffes (such as physicist Alan Sokal's hoax article
"Transgressing the Boundaries - Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of
Quantum Gravity" that was accepted and published after glowing peer reviews
in the academic journal Social Text) have recently called this system into
question, most academics would grudgingly agree that they cannot
immediately suggest a better alternative. The peer review system is,
however, far from perfect.

A serious counterpoint to the relative intellectual safety of a peer
reviewed paper is that it comes at a high cost in terms of timeliness. One
only needs to review the first page of articles in any scientific journal
and compare the first submitted dates with the publication date of the
journal. Intervals of between one and three years between submission and
publication are not uncommon. These delays are almost inevitable given the
many checks and balances in the system and the fact that reviewers and
journal editors perform their tasks out of dedication to the field and
receive either no compensation or inadequate compensation.

My contention is that we have come to accept the unacceptable. How can it
be reasonable that it might take three years before you or I have the
opportunity to read about an important advance in our field? It is
reminiscent of the posthumous publication of "Der Gang des Menschen" (The
Human Gait), the last chapter of which appeared in 1904, long after Wilhelm
Braune's death and approximately 13 years after the data were collected.
So here we are in the midst of the "information age" with publication
delays that are not too far from those encountered at the end of the last

In contrast, the Internet offers the possibility of instant publication.
As a researcher, I could discover new knowledge from an experiment or
model one morning and put it up on my Web site in the afternoon. A quick
note on BIOMCH-L would alert 2500 interested individuals of the presence of
this new finding and the cause of knowledge would seem to have been served
at the speed of light. While this might at first seem like the ideal
situation, a pause for thought raises some thorny issues.

First and foremost is the issue of the veracity of the findings. It is
really an expression of the noise versus knowledge question. On the
Internet, all apparent knowledge has equal face value to the casual
consumer, who then becomes the peer reviewer. This is clearly a less than
desirable situation and one which is susceptible to hoax, scientific fraud,
carelessness, genuine error, and simple incompetence.

Next, let us overlook the veracity issue and assume that the newly posted
knowledge - carefully researched, accurately formulated and presented - is
a really important advance and something that might find a place in a
premier refereed journal. Let us examine the impact of immediate Internet
publication of such a finding on the career of a young academic. At
present, any Internet publication is ethereal - temporary, sometimes
inaccessible, intangible, and subject to change or deletion. Few
department chairs in the foreseeable future are likely to give credit for
such postings as valid evidence of research competence which might form the
basis for awarding a job for life. There is simply too much uncertainty in
the medium for the message to carry substantial weight. In addition, the
issue of primacy of a publication is one which the Internet makes more
difficult to determine. How does one establish that one really had the
idea first and that this idea was not just something which was encountered
during a productive evening of academic Web surfing?

This is the kernel of the conflict between instant dissemination of new
knowledge and the present criteria for academic advancement: the best
interests of science are served by immediate dissemination but the best
interests of the investigator are served by journal publication which may
delay the appearance of the finding for several years. One strong argument
is that the guidelines for tenure are (or even the process of tenure itself
is) archaic and that this example demonstrates a major flaw in the
institution. However, for the foreseeable future, this is the system under
which we must live.

Are there solutions to the dilemma identified here? One possible scenario
is the following: Professional societies such as the ISB could provide a
site where short reports could be EMailed. The Society would also offer
intervals of paid telecommuting employment to qualified reviewers who have
time to devote to the task of instant report review. The report would be
assigned a score by two such reviewers and then posted within 48 hours of
receipt on the Electronic Journal of the ISB with the score attached.
Qualified readers (e.g. ISB members) could also assign a score which would
be updated as a running average as each reader expressed an opinion. There
would be no revisions by the author and thus no long delays in posting.
Each 14 days the Journal would be indexed and archived at a site where easy
retrieval was possible. One stipulation would be that the data must be
available for review on the author's own web site.

You may be familiar with journals such as Behavioral and Brain Sciences
which allow potential reviewers to FTP the manuscript and submit written
commentaries to which the authors respond. Unfortunately, this process -
despite its thoroughness - is only slightly more expeditious than
conventional journal publishing.

My suggestion, described above, is certainly not a carefully constructed,
researched, or benchmarked model. However, I hope that it will stimulate
debate. Some method must be found to use the power of the Internet to
exploit rapid dissemination of knowledge while satisfying the many other
scientific and academic constraints. Let me know your suggestions
(prc@psu.edu) and details of any other precedents that you may have seen.
This could lead to an altogether new and exciting venue for your research
findings and we could be breaking ground for other disciplines!

Best wishes

Peter R. Cavanagh
ISB President

{ Peter R. Cavanagh }
{ Center for Locomotion Studies }
{ Penn State University }
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{ PA 16802 USA }
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{ FAX +1 814 863 4755 }
{ Email PRC@PSU.EDU }
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