Richard Smith: Enter the “liquid journal”

Richard SmithIt may be what epidemiologists call “ascertainment bias” (seeing what you want to see), but I detect the beginning of the end of prepublication peer review. The latest death knell is the appearance of a “liquid journal” where scientists can post papers without peer review and papers in evolution, data sets, pieces of computer code, or blogs. The new journal is a research project funded by the European Union and supported by the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Springer Science (a major commercial publisher), and others.

The new journal (and maybe “journal” is not the best word for such a new thing) is the idea of Fabio Casati, professor of computer science at the University of Trento and the holder of 20 patents. Casati thinks that scientists are spending too much time writing papers, many of them describing tiny incremental developments, and not enough time doing science. The incentives are all wrong: scientists are rewarded for publishing in major journals and so spend too much time writing papers. “The more papers you produce, the more brownie points you get,” says Casati. “So most of your time is spent writing papers instead of thinking or doing science.”

Casati wants to bring the doing and the disseminating of science closer together. We saw this at work in the Human Genome Project where scientists were constantly exchanging data through the web and where the final papers in Science and Nature were like the topping off of a cathedral rather than the building of the cathedral.

The first liquid journal appropriately is on peer review, and Casati and his colleagues have done research which convinces them that prepublication peer review is worthless. “We’ve studied this and found that peer review doesn’t work, in the sense that there seems to be very little correlation between the judgement of peer reviewers and the fate of a paper after publication,” says Casati. “Many papers get very high marks from their peer reviewers but have little effect on the field. And on the other hand, many papers get average ratings but have a big impact.”

Like me Casati believes that the real peer review comes after publication. The world will decide in the market of ideas which papers matter most.  “If you and I include this paper in our journals, we are giving it value,” says Casati. “When this is done by hundreds of people like us, we’re using the selection power of the entire community to value the contribution. Interesting papers will rise above the noise.” This is “we think” rather than what a few arbitrarily selected reviewers think.

As I write this I think of a sad—indeed, ridiculous—story I’ve just heard of the failures of peer review. It concerns a paper that I’ve known about for two years and think very important that still hasn’t been published. It’s a paper written by a fellow of the Royal Society with others, and none of the perhaps 15 reviewers of the three journals who have rejected the paper have seen a major flaw. It is, however, a paper that is “disturbing” in that it suggests that what a lot of researchers (read “peer reviewers”) are doing is a waste of time. It seems to me that the peer review process has been a terrible waste of time, effort, and talent. Much better to have posted the paper on the web and let the world decide its importance or lack of it and for the reviewers to have got on with researching.

The chances are, however, that Casati’s journal will not be the development that causes the whole edifice of peer review and traditional journals to come crashing down—there are too many opposing forces.

Firstly, scientists are surprisingly conservative. I never quite understand why they should be so when their whole way of working is questioning, experimenting, criticising, and doubting—but they are.

Secondly, rewards still come from publishing in the major journals, all of them making substantial profits from value added by others—the scientists themselves. Universities have been talking about “uncoupling” evaluation of performance and publication for 20 years—but it hasn’t happened.

Thirdly, there are too many vested interests to overcome. Publishers, both commercial and scientific societies, and their employees have their empires, profits, and jobs invested in peer review and the traditional journals.

Yet despite these opposing forces the new ways opened up by the internet will eventually bring down prepublication peer review and transform traditional journals just as they have brought down oppressive regimens. I urge you all to access the new journal at and email Fabio Casati at offering support. I’ve already done so.

Competing interests: RS is on the board (unpaid) of the open access publisher, Public Library of Science, and has written a book, the Trouble with Medical Journals in which he criticises peer review and traditional journals. If you were to buy a copy he’d made £2, but he’d be just as happy if you borrowed it from the library as he doesn’t need the money.