"Research funders should invest money in setting up a good peer review system"

Publishing impact according to Anna Akhmanova

Anna Akhmanova

Prof. Anna Akhmanova is not only a respected cell biologist with many publications to her name, but she is also a member of several editorial boards. She is deputy editor of the open access journal eLife. This means that Anna Akhmanova is familiar with both sides of the (open access) publication process. In this interview she tells us more about her experiences.

You live in two worlds:  the world of science and the world of journal editorial boards. Could you tell us more about your activities?

eLife is founded as a full open access journal with an editorial board consisting of scientists. We are a nonprofit journal, and we are funded in a different way than many other journals, namely directly by funding bodies such as Wellcome. eLife was founded with the explicit aim of improving scientific publishing in the life sciences. We also actively share our thoughts about what the future of scientific publishing should look like.

There are scientists who declare themselves against open access, due to the quality of the publications, but there is no fundamental difference regarding the final result of an open access journal or a non-open access journal. The fundamental difference lies in how the publications are paid for, something which is not always understood.

But what about the difference when it comes to the accessibility of non-open access journals? Take for instance a researcher living in a developing country who cannot access a journal because his or her library cannot afford the subscription fees.

That is true. So open access benefits the poorly funded researcher. High-profile journals such as Nature and Science are behind a high paywall. These journals do offer open access publishing but they ask authors to pay APCs that can go up to 11,000 euros. So now researchers must face another obstacle: they can now read the journal, but they may not be able to afford publishing in it. That is why the funding issue is so important, because you want all researchers to have not only reading access but also publishing access, and this access should be arranged in a fair way.

You may in fact begin to wonder what the function of a journal is in this internet era. You can put your study online and everyone can read it. As a result, the function of a journal is no longer publishing itself, in other words: making your research results public. The main function now lies in a good quality of peer review:  checking if it is in fact correct what is said in the article. And secondly in curation: determining whether this is a high-quality and important article that will change the world or whether it is only important to a small group of experts.

So one of the missions of eLife is organising good peer reviews. The problem people have with open access is thinking that open access journals go without a good peer review system. That assumption is based on a misunderstanding.

My advice to young researchers is to publish only in journals which have set up a solid and high-quality peer review system. That is something I do myself, by the way.

But what about journal impact factors?

Dutch universities and also NWO, the Dutch Research Council, are now no longer fixated on high-profile journals and impact factors but want to focus on research quality. But there really is no other way of judging scientific research than through peer reviews. No one else but other people working in the same field can judge the quality of the research. The broader scholarly world may say things about the importance of a particular study, but checking if things are correct can only be done by experts. Take for example research into COVID-19. Suppose someone says: I have found a vaccine against corona. Billions of lay people may find that of interest, but if three experts declare that the vaccine is definitely unreliable, then their opinion is endlessly more important than the opinion of those billions interested. This example shows how important peer review is.

There really is no other way of judging scientific research than through peer reviews.

And are we on our way to a world where peer review plays a predominant role?

We already live in that world, we only need to organise it differently. Scientists are asked by journal publishers to write a peer review, but they do not get a penny for their work. You could ask yourself: should this process be in the hands of big publishing firms making a lot of profit, or could you do it differently? Why not let scientists take care of it all: not only carrying out editorial tasks, but also recruiting the peer reviewers. This is how we work at eLife by the way. The next question is: how do we fund this new process? Could it be done on a nonprofit basis? I think that funding bodies like NWO should take their responsibility in this question. Research funders should invest money in setting up a good peer review system, because that means promoting the quality of open access journals.

Talking of changing things, what would be your ideal publishing world?

It used to be like this: you wrote an article, you sent it to a journal that looked if it matched their field of interest, then peer review followed and then the article was either published or not.

There is  no such thing as an ideal world, but I think the future world is one in which it will be the other way around: you start with publishing by posting your article as preprint in a preprint archive, for instance BioRxiv. So the moment your research is done, you make it publicly known and everybody can comment on your article. It does not cost a lot, and a preprint archive is accessible for everybody. The second step is peer review, so then you have a peer-reviewed preprint. Then we can apply curation. At eLife we do not even peer review articles that are not available as a preprint. Our goal is to generate public reviews of these articles, so that everybody can read both the articles and the peer reviews before they appear in a journal. In this way the influence of journal brands and journal impact factors can be reduces, while the important function of peer review is preserved.

So we have made significant progress?

We are on our way. The publishing world has known a long period of stagnation, especially in biomedical sciences, but there can be no doubt that things are now changing rapidly.

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