Wim Weber on the future of scientific publishing

Wim WeberOn 28 and 29 May a small, but highly engaged audience appeared in Leiden for the 3rd European Conference on Scientific Publishing in Biomedicine and Medicine. The printing press made penning book-copiers obsolete, and these days one fears librarian extinction by computers. But no, they appear to be very much alive, and have taken on new roles as information scientists, because someone has to manage the information floods heading our way.

There is too much information now; Ben Goldacre, medical writer in London, told us that a GP would need 600 hours per month to read all the relevant literature that appears each month. A month only has 720 hours. He elaborated on the idea put forward by Richard Smith and Ian Roberts, that results of clinical trials should not be published in journals, but rather the data should be published in a predetermined database. Eventual interpretations could then be published in journals. This would speed up dissemination of knowledge and decrease the spin that authors (and their funders) often put on their work.

Barend Mons, information scientist in Leiden, took this idea further and argued that publications now contain a lot of redundant information: “all malaria papers contain at least one sentence saying that malaria is transmitted by mosquitoes.” He proposed nanopublications, in the form of CA’ s: critical assertions, preferable in triples, that can be easily transferred to machine language. He calculated that this could decrease the amount of newly emerging research communications more than 1000-fold. Scientific work can then be appraised by counting the number of CA’s of each researcher. This proved a little too far for the audience who agreed that this would probably be feasible for the exact sciences such as physics and computational biology, but less so for sciences that are more dependent upon contexts, such as the humanities.

Appraising research efforts remains a hot topic. Philip Purnell of Thomson Reuters (they of the impact factor) introduced InCites, a system that calculates citations per paper, corrected for averages of particular fields, countries, whatever you wish. This, he claimed, enables one to compare researchers across various disciplines. As we heard that more publishers are working towards these kinds of comparators (Elsevier has SNIP), it could imply that the impact factor, that now works to strengthen the status quo among journals, could be out of date soon.

It would certainly favour journals with open access. Carrie Calder, head of marketing with BioMedCentral, gave an overview illustrating that open access publishing is now firmly established as a business model for research publications. OA journals keep emerging and Stevan Harnad, information scientist in Southampton, confirmed in his extensive research, that OA papers do get cited more often. He attributed the unusually high place of the University of Southampton in research rankings mainly to the fact that they were early adapters to OA publishing.

While we have too much information, there is also the problem of too little information. Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ gave a historical overview of non-publication of unwelcome trial data by pharmaceutical companies, by video from her London office. The Vioxx story with its suppressed data on cardiovascular side effects is one of the prominent recent examples.  A priori registration of trials is a possible solution, but research has shown that the majority of negative trials is never published. Ben Goldacre has launched an initiative that monitors publication of all registered trials, in an effort to make this more transparent. In this field he thought it saddening that one of the largest trial registers, namely the one kept by the European Medicines Agency, EMEA, is not open to the public.

The last speaker was Ségolène Aymé of OrphaNet, who spoke before an orphaned audience, as most delegates had already left. OrphaNet is the highly sympathetic and successful initiative to stimulate European research in orphan diseases. They are now coordinating 1200 trials for 210 diseases in 24 countries. “OrphaNet, said one of the conference’s organisers, “are, through their information and data management, a fantastic example of the new librarians”. Even so, Ms Aymé admitted that she still publishes yearly reports with thousands of printed pages, because “that impresses people.”

Wim Weber is the european research editor, BMJ