I just read the excellently forward thinking year end editorial of the new journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. The editorial was written by Lonnie Aarssen and Christopher Lortie and is filled with Aarssen’s trademark,creative, outside the proverbial box, thinking. In this case it applies to the field of scientific publishing, the things they’ve tried to change with their new journal and those attempts that have failed and required rethinking. There are a lot of great ideas embodied in this editorial and that from the launch of the journal the previous year.
My personal favorite relates to how they intend to, and to some degree succeed in, conducting peer review. Their original plan was for completely open peer review, where the identities of the reviewers would not only be known to the authors, but actually formally attached to the manuscript if it was published. I think that this is an excellent idea. A great deal of harm has been done to the scientific process due to the anonymity of reviewers. If someone decides that they “don’t like” a paper (or the person writing the paper), they can simply proceed to shoot it down based on poorly reasoned arguments with practically no responsibility for doing so. On the flip side, if someone likes the message of a paper even if that paper contains obvious technical flaws, they can write a glowing review without concern that their support for the paper will reflect badly on them. This system places the reviewer in a situation where they are actually responsible for the content of their review, thus forcing them to attempt to provide a balanced and honest assessment of the manuscript. This also conveniently addresses the common argument that, because they want to avoid retaliation by angry authors, reviewers will be hesitant to be appropriately critical if their identities are not kept secret.
Of course this represents an additional burden on the reviewers because they are no longer agreeing to simply throw together an evaluation that’s probably, sort of, mostly, accurate and kind of well justified; they are putting together a carefully reasoned opinion that they are being asked to stand behind. In order to compensate reviewers for this effort IEE originally planned to pay reviewers for their efforts ($150 Canadian). This, unfortunately, is where their brilliant plan failed. In order to finance this payment authors would be required to pay a submission fee, irregardless of whether their manuscript was published or not. This was apparently a bit much to ask of the average author and the journal has been forced to change its policy on paying for reviews. However, the plan for open review is still in place and I for one want to applaud Aarssen and IEE for thinking seriously about ways to actually improve the state of the scientific publication system.
There are a number of other interesting ideas in the editorials and I would encourage you to take the time to read them both. As with the articles the journal hopes to publish, there are things in these two editorials that are controversial, including some that I disagree with fairly strongly†, but there is no doubt that this is some of the most creative thinking about the scientific publishing process that has been done in a long time.