What is the difference between online content and journal publications, when it comes to science?
The majority of published academic work will go through what is known as a ‘Peer Review Process’. The idea behind this is to provide quality control by having experts question the scientific method employed, the analysis of data obtained, and the arguments put forward to explain what is happening. This largely acts as a ‘fact-checking’ step in the publication process.
For a typical publication, a manuscript will be drafted and sent to the editors of a journal. These can either be employed, full time editors (such as at Nature or Science), volunteers from the academic community (such as most Conference proceedings), or a combination of both (e.g. European Physics Letters).
The manuscript will first be checked for a minimum standard (this varies between journals), and then sent out to experts in the international community who volunteer their time to perform these peer reviews.
The result of such peer review is normally one of the following:
- Acceptance – the article may require small changes, but is otherwise accepted for publication.
- Rejection – the article is not of sufficient quality or interest for the particular journal and is recommended to be published elsewhere.
- Respond to reviewers – the peer review process has identified potential questions or weaknesses in the manuscript. There are specific changes or questions that need to be addressed after which the manuscript will go through a second round of peer review and either accepted or rejected.
Open access publishing
Historically, scientific publications have fallen under the ‘subscription’ model, where an individual or their employer/institution paid a fee to access journal articles. You will have probably seen this if you ever tried to find a journal article whilst at home.
There has in recent years been a push from the academic community as well as some Governments away from this model, so that the research is more readily available. This is where open access publishing comes in.
In the UK, for example, the Government requires some open access version of every publication that an institution wants to submit to the REF (a regular quality assessment of University research outputs). This can be done in one of 2 ways:
(1) By paying ‘open-access charges’ to the Publisher of any research outputs. There is some money available for this for UK funded research. Charges vary from publisher to publisher, and an also depend on the length and composition of the journal article (for example, whether colour images are included).
(2) By depositing a version of the publication on an institutional repository or archive. This requires some knowledge of the copyright restrictions for each publisher and is usually handled by the institution’s librarians. It is quite common for science articles to be deposited on the ArXiv prior to submission to a publisher for peer review.
The ArXiv is a server that hosts pre-submitted journal articles. It was established by Paul Ginsparg, originally at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who later moved to Cornell University. It is currently hosted by Cornell University’s library and is commonly used to quickly disseminate scientific results, especially for research that is moving quickly.
Conflict of interest
Of course some might argue that there is a conflict of interest in these proceedings, as the peer reviewers can be influenced by their own biases. There is often also anecdotal stories of ‘discoveries’ being blocked from publication by a peer reviewer working in the same field who wants to publish first, or who are proponents of alternative theories. This can largely be avoided at the submission stage by identifying specific individuals that may have a conflict of interest.