Trish Groves: Postpublication review—what role should journals play?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information of the US National Library of Medicine has emerged from the US shutdown with a new service: PubMed Commons. It’s a system for commenting on published articles, though at this stage it’s running as a closed pilot. Hilda Bastian of PubMed Health reckons it could become “one of the biggest science water-coolers of all.”

And in a post on the Evidence Based Health listserv, Hilda argued that “people have been calling for serious post-publication peer review for a long time, but take-up has always been a really big concern. Here’s hoping the possibility of doing it in a place that gets millions of visitors a day might work.”

What’s not to like?

Well… here’s how I replied to Hilda’s post:

“It’s a great idea. So good that we’ve been doing it for 15 years at the BMJ.

But, at the risk of sounding churlish, I want to point out that there’s a potential downside.

Increasingly, PMC is biting the hand that feeds it, by:

* taking a ton of web traffic away from journals—this threatens journals’ viability. Libraries and advertisers rely heavily on journal usage data to make decisions about where to spend their money, and increasingly authors will use almetrics to decide where to submit their work.

* launching PubMed Reader, which makes it really hard for readers to link to the original journal article—the link is deeply buried and very hard to find.

* competing head on with open access journals and journals that send paywalled content direct to PubMed on publication without delay—why would anyone bother to go to the journal if they can get the articles immediately from PubMed?

* providing journal-type services such as postpublication commenting, depleting journals’ ability to foster debate and engage their community. Of course, lots of debate already happens elsewhere, via blogs and social media, and that’s great. But journal postpublication debate and review can work really well, as we’ve shown at the BMJ with the 92,500 Rapid Responses we’ve posted since 1998.

PMC’s done great service to medicine, and it has relied enormously on the support and goodwill of journals. But is its mission now creeping too far in a direction that could ultimately threaten journals’ and, in time, its own viability? And does PMC really want to deter journals from doing the right thing?

I realise this sounds like a whinge, but I do think it’s one worth considering. And it’s not just an issue for commercial publishers journals: academic institutions are moving towards launching house journals/university presses fed by their open access content that they will get peer reviewed and then rated by altmetrics. They may need to worry about PMC’s journalisation too.” [Ends]

So, BMJ readers, what do you think? We’d love you to respond here, by adding comments below.

But you may also like to join the debate at the listserv or via all or any of these Twitter accounts:

@trished (that’s me)

And, yes, I realise the irony of suggesting that you comment elsewhere about content…

Competing interests: I declare that that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I hereby declare the following interests: I’m deputy editor at the BMJ and editor-in-chief at BMJ Open. We want people to come to and to read the open access research that we publish and to comment on it there. My salary is covered by journal revenues.