Research intelligence - New journal, all-new rules

Practising scientists will edit an open-access title backed by three major research funders. Paul Jump reports

July 7, 2011

Credit: Science Photo Library
Cutting out the middle men: Senior scientists will edit papers for the new journal

The announcement that three major biomedical funders are to launch their own top-tier journal has put the cat among the pigeons in the world of scientific publishing.

The UK's Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US and Germany's Max Planck Society aim to launch the unnamed open-access journal next summer.

Although full details have yet to be released, the funders confirmed in a press conference last week that the journal will span the life sciences, will be open to all researchers and will be edited by senior practising scientists without interference from the funding bodies.

The decision to launch the journal was made after a meeting with senior scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus last year. According to Wellcome Trust director Sir Mark Walport, the meeting saw "unanimity and strength of feeling" around the idea that "the process of science peer review needs to be owned by professional scientists".

Robert Tijan, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said the protracted wait for papers to be published in top-tier journals such as Cell, Nature and Science was the result of professional editors' lack of "scientific wherewithal" to overrule peer reviewers' requests for further data and experiments. This led to what Sir Mark called "endless iterations of nit-picking".

Reviewers for the new journal - whom the funders are contemplating paying - will commit to completing the review process for submissions within three to four weeks, while keeping requests for additional experiments and supplementary data to a minimum.

Another fault of professional editors, according to Dr Tijan, is an obsession with boosting their journal's impact factor and media profile, leading them to favour potentially paradigm-shifting discoveries.

"But very often what happens in complex biological systems is that the first few papers are wrong," he noted. "Interest wanes...when, in fact, the best science is done two years down the line."

Dr Tijan said the new journal would judge papers solely on the basis of whether they surpass a threshold of scientific excellence.

Taking charge

Janet Thornton, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, strongly endorsed "bringing the process of review back into the hands of scientists".

"Important papers are often rejected by (professional) editors without even being sent out to reviewers. This is deeply frustrating for any scientist who wants to be judged by other scientists solely on the basis of scientific excellence, without reference to current fashion," she said.

Nobel laureate Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs and an invitee to the Janelia Farm meeting, said that he did not regard the existing top journals as "good arbiters of good science", citing the frequency with which they retracted articles.

But another invitee, Cameron Neylon, a senior scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford, was concerned about the assumption that scientists "can do everything better than anyone else".

He asked to see solid evidence that active researchers were more effective than professional editors at selecting "good" papers.

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, insisted that his journal's selection decisions were informed purely by scientific excellence.

He said "fast, efficient publishing operations" were best achieved with professional editors, but added that Nature editors "think and act like scientists", since they all have science PhDs and, in many cases, further academic or industrial experience.

"After time away from the lab, whatever in-depth expertise is lost in their specific research speciality (and is provided by referees) is more than compensated for by their breadth of overview," he added.

While acknowledging that peer review could be inefficient, he argued that editors used their "best judgement to avoid unnecessary work for authors" and "frequently overrule referees in deciding whether a paper meets editorial criteria for scientific significance".

The funders also cited the continuing lack of open-access options at top journals as a further reason to take matters into their own hands.

But Professor Roberts questioned whether this was sufficient reason to launch a new journal.

"I would prefer a course where the current journals found a route to become open access," he said.

The problem, according to Steven Inchcoombe, managing director of Nature Publishing Group, was that top-tier journals' high level of submissions meant that a shift to open access would require "challenging" article-processing charges to be levied on the authors of papers selected for publication.

He expressed concern that the funders' decision to eschew article charges for the new publication - at least in the first few years - could "disrupt" other journals' moves to open access. This approach could also be "a liability to the funders and a drain on research funds", he said.

But Dr Tijan described the costs of publication as no more significant than a "rounding error" for institutes spending around $800 million (£500 million) a year on research.

"Cost is not the biggest thing for us," he said. "We are more interested in the quality (of the published papers) and how to make the (editing) process efficient and rapid."

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