Why scientists should stop publishing

Earlier this month a Japanese researcher was found guilty of scientific misconduct and two groundbreaking studies published in Nature were retracted. This is a symptom of a broken system.

Ask most scientists why they pursued a career in research and the majority will tell you that they had an innate passion for discovery. However, the current 'publish or perish' culture in academia is arguably impeding the discovery process.

Even Nobel laureates have spoken out about the negative impact of this culture, including Peter Higgs, who told the Guardian that even he would not be productive enough to compete in the current academic system.

To be a successful academic you must publish research in peer-reviewed academic journals, and preferably 'high impact' journals such as Science and Nature.

While the intention behind peer review - to maintain standards of quality - is critically important, the implementation of this process may actually be contributing to a systemic flaw.

Online archives

Using an open access archive system as the primary way of communicating and evaluating science instead of peer reviewed academic journals may be an answer. Fields such as mathematics and physics already use online archives in addition to journals.

For example, hosted by Cornell University library, is a not-for-profit online platform where scientists upload their papers to share their most recent findings without having to spend time and resources trying to publish their work in a traditional journal.

Once papers are submitted to the archive, moderators organise the research into categories, papers are critiqued by other scientists in the field, and authors can then revise and re-submit in a transparent process.

Employing an archive system may (1) make research more accessible to other scientists and the general public (2) help save time and resources when sharing research and (3) reduce the emphasis on impact factor as a proxy of an article's importance.

At its core, science is a collaborative global community, intended to benefit everyone.

Yet our traditional mode of publishing, peer reviewed journals, operate on the opposite principle: you only get access if you pay for expensive subscription fees. Keeping papers locked behind journal fees is a fundamental flaw in the traditional publishing system.

Over the past 10 years there has been a growing movement towards open access journals. Some publicly funded research councils, such as Research Councils UK already require that authors make their papers freely available to everyone.

Because of this, there has been an emergence of professional peer reviewed open access publishers such as PLoS, BioMedCentral, F1000 and eLife.

Open access journals are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and are taking advantage of the digital age. However, the reliance on the pre-publication peer review system, and because they are marked with an impact factor, means there may still be room for improvement.

Impact factor

The second reason for moving towards an archive system is to keep time and resources focused on the discovery process.

An archive would remove some of the typical submission and subscription fees, would reduce time spent conducting (arguably unnecessary) experiments to appease reviewers, and reduce time spent resubmitting to different journals in hopes of trying to publish in the one with the highest impact factor.

The third reason we should adopt an archive system is to change our focus away from impact factor.

Because impact factor is calculated as the average number of citations for papers published in a particular journal during the previous two years, it is affected most by papers that make the biggest immediate splash and use methods that are deemed trendy, instead of reflecting long-term impact.

Additionally, a study showed that papers published in the highest impact journals were more likely to be retracted because their findings were no longer considered trustworthy.

This may be because the most novel, surprising and perspective-changing findings are often published in high impact journals or because they receive more attention and critique, but it is also possible that the intense pressure to publish in high impact journals may be indirectly encouraging poor or 'dodgy' science practice.

One study showed that the integrity of research is negatively affected by the pressures of the 'publish or perish' culture.

If we move away from journals with impact factors and pre-publication peer review, we could use post-publication reviews, commentaries, endorsements and number of citations to reflect the quality of the science.

We need a system that incentivises and rewards sound research methodology.

An archive could increase transparency and foster the collaborative nature of science, while also re-directing a higher proportion of time and resources towards conducting the best science, instead of trying to publish in the best journals.

* Brianne Kent is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, doing a PhD in experimental psychology. She and fellow postgraduate students at the university have formed a discussion group to address the current science culture.