The evolving landscape of scientific publishing 

| September 17, 2021

Scientific publishing is undergoing a transition phase characterized by a mixed model of subscription and open access. The recent advent of platform publishing together with the challenges of accessibility, equity and metrics are changing the ways science is published and done, and the way scientific careers are evaluated.

In this article, I present a brief history of scientific publishing, outline the current publishing models, and discuss the emergent paths of scientific publishing. I also touch on the recent preprint issue in Australia in the wider context of ongoing change.

A brief history of scientific publishing

Communicating science has preceded Writing with early civilizations carving the motion of stars and planets on stones. Following the invention of Writing, the Sumerians left us transaction records, the Egyptians inscribed farming calendars and medical procedures on Temple walls, while the Greeks gave us philosophical and astronomic tomes. The Arabs translated ancient works and added original contributions, paving the way for the Scientific Revolution of the European Enlightenment.

The invention of the printing press around 1450, ushered the era of publishing. Systematic collections appeared followed by the formation of scientific societies and periodicals. Amongst the earliest scientific journals which directly connect with our modern journals were the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’ and the ‘Journal des Sçavans’.

The early publishing format was one observation or one experiment per article. From these beginnings it was well recognized that the scientific work is not complete until it is published with Michael Faraday coining the ethos of “work, finish, and publish”.

Publish or Perish

Up to the middle of the 20th century, there were few scientific journals publishing a wide range of articles. With the accelerated pace and widening scope of scientific research, the specialized journal was gradually established. The increased volume of publishing created the need to quantify and rank the quality of published articles.

The Impact Factor (IF) was invented in 1960s by a linguist to measure how often a paper was cited by other papers. The scene was set for the rise of the prestigious journal. Some Editors became increasingly selective and favored substantial and rigorous articles which are likely to attract the highest number of citations. This culture, which we currently operate within, places large pressures on young researchers to collect enough data before their papers maybe published in the top journals.

The requirement to publish often in high impact journals serves well researchers who work in well-funded and large research laboratories, but disadvantages researchers who work in medium and less well funded labs who must work for years to collect the required data. Needless to say, this race leaves out altogether researchers working in small labs or in developing countries with little funding regardless of the quality of their scientific questions, works or results.

Overcoming the Paywall of Science Publications

The 20th century saw the birth of the modern scientific publishing industry with the consolidation of publishing societies into large incorporated companies such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc. Currently, there are about 25,000 scientific journals accounted for on the Journal Citation Report (JCR, Web of Science), 70% of which are published in English of which 50% (~11,000) had a journal impact factor (JIF) in 2020.

This large number of journals places substantial financial pressures on academic institutions and their libraries to maintain subscription fees. Each year, librarians ask academics whether they can do away with some journals to maintain their ability to fund subscriptions to the journals that are most relevant to the specific needs of researchers at the various institutions.

The pressure of mounting subscription fees in addition to factors including increased selectivity, emergence of new publishing houses in China, India and other non-Western countries have led to the birth of Open Access, where authors pay the publisher up front for the article to enter the open domain.

This publishing model shifts the cost of publishing from the institution to the author and solves the issue of accessibility. Work done by any lab, large or small, can be readily accessed by all researchers, including those working in developing countries.

However, this model does not enable small labs to neither do nor publish their scientific output in the bigger journals which remain behind the great paywall of science and their high rejection rates. Some countries like the US, UK and Canada have started funding Open Access but this is not universally adopted yet. The key issues of equity and the disproportionate role that publishers play in scientific dissemination remain largely unaddressed.

The preprint maybe seen as a response to the various pressures of publishing. The preprint is a submitted manuscript which is made immediately available while it is still undergoing peer-review, allowing the immediate dissemination of scientific information. This mode of publishing overcomes the sometimes-lengthy peer-review process, especially with the ever-increasing difficulty of sourcing reviewers for the traditional subscription-type journals.

It is paramount to promptly share scientific discoveries in today’s fast-moving research culture. While, the Biology preprint server, has been launched relatively recently, the mathematicians and physicists have been populating their preprints on for many years.

In this context, one can see the latest row in Australia as to whether it is permissible to cite preprints in research grants or even research articles. Before preprints, researchers cited unsubmitted or not-yet-accepted data as ‘unpublished’ or ‘Personal Communication’. With these online servers, other authors and assessors get to judge the quality of the data by themselves.

The Registered Report is the latest kid on the block and is set to change not only the way we publish science but also the way we do science. Some journals have started publishing ‘experiments’ which are underway if the questions and the methods are deemed of quality. Accordingly, the authors can start sharing their research before data collection has started, and obtain feedback on their experimental design and data quality.

This is a seismic shift in culture away from data-centered publishing towards research questions and methods. This mode of access empowers researchers and addresses the balance of power shared by the researchers, reviewers, editors, the journals and publishers.

Evolving forms of scientific publication

The centrepiece of scientific publishing remains the research article, which makes up 80 to 90% of a researcher’s scientific output, followed by review articles and book chapters.

The Research article usually describes a completed, long-term study which answers a significant question formulated by a serious of connected hypotheses, and presents novel findings which are well argued in the context of the wider literature. The Review article or chapter summarises the state of knowledge in a particular area, sometimes including meta-analysis of published data and presents a synthesis of the field while highlighting gaps in our understanding and future directions.

These two types of documents often constitute what most scientists are busy writing at any time of their career.

The Letter or Short Communication is a shorter format of the Research article, which has lately witnessed a resurgence and is being actively promoted by some journals. Short research articles may become more important in the future due to the call for faster publication pace and because science is moving fast.

By the time the long-term study is completed and has undergone the lengthy peer-review, other researchers may have published similar or contradictory results making the long research article unoriginal or even obsolete. Also, given the volume of the published literature, the reader’s attention maybe more successfully grabbed by publishing one simpler experiment with a small dataset and a shorter introduction and discussion text.

Another form which is also gaining momentum is the Data article which is driven by the need to curate long term data collected by multiple researchers. The datasets are deposited in the public domain, allowing other researchers to use the data for their own purposes addressing different and novel questions, therefore getting more use and benefit out of the published data.

To adapt to new social media platforms, some journals, and even individual researchers, academic institutions or societies, are publishing short videos highlighting the main points of the research article or discovery.

This format reflects the way the new generation of researchers access knowledge and consumes information. It also reflects the increased pressure on scientists to directly communicate the significance and impact of their research to the wider public and, funding agencies and policy makers.

Platform publishing

The landscape of scientific publishing is fast changing. Increasingly, researchers are embracing the ethos of freely and promptly sharing their data to be utilised by other researchers. The proliferation of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools is allowing novel ways of analysing the same data to answer different questions to the original ones responsible for their collection.

The emphasis is less on the individual scientist, and increasingly on the data and the ability to unpack their significance in multiple ways for the common good of science and society. Moreover, young researchers are adopting social media platforms (Twitter, YouTube) not only as means of promoting their scientific achievements but also as means of communicating the discoveries.

New researchers who grew up on various platforms are creating their own platform publishing with their smart devices. This trend is unlikely to be curtailed and is a sign of the things to come. The changes will undoubtedly rattle the bastions of traditional publishing models, both subscription and open access.

The future of publishing is increasingly in the fingertips of the Next Gen researchers and is driven by their need to publish fast, openly and freely share data and work more collaboratively than ever. These trends are facilitated by the enormous powers unleashed by Platforms, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Networks and constant Connectedness.

This paper was presented online by the author to the Global Plant Council in September 2021.