Currently, scientists need to pay to publish research and readers need to pay to access most research articles. This outdated approach to sharing science slows advancement by locking research behind paywalls, and prevents the public from being able to read the research that their tax dollars funded. In this round table, Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan, eLife Editor-in-Chief Michael Eisen, and WashU neuroscientist Bryan Copits discuss the current state of open access science, efforts to make science more accessible, and what the future of scientific publishing could look like.
This conversation is an abridged version of the YouTube live stream that took place on Monday, February 27th. You can find the full live stream here. Additionally, I recorded a one-on-one follow-up conversation on this subject with Bryan Copits; I will upload that conversation next week.
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Jamie Moffa: Hello everyone, Jamie here. Before we get to the episode, I wanted to make a quick note that this episode was originally recorded as a live stream on YouTube, and what you will be hearing here is an abridged version of the conversation that happened on that live stream. So if you want to hear the full conversation, you can go over to youtube.com/@PlainEnglishSci and check out the live stream entitled “Open Science Round Table.”
Additionally, I recorded a follow-up one-on-one conversation after this conversation with Bryan Copits, one of the guests on the live stream. I was originally going to append that to this conversation, but I believed it deserved its own mini episode, so that will be released next Tuesday. With that out of the way, please enjoy this abridged version of the “Open Science Round Table” live stream.
JM: Hello, everyone. Welcome to In Plain English, a podcast that is dedicated to making science approachable, open source, and jargon free. My name is Jamie Moffa. I am the host of In Plain English. I am also an MD PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis doing my PhD in neuroscience. Today, I’m very excited to be joined by our three amazing guests, Bryan Copits, Michael Eisen, and Alexandra Elbakyan. Thank you all for being on this live stream today.
Michael Eisen: Nice to be here.
JM: So why don’t you each give a quick little introduction about yourselves and what you do?
Bryan Copits: My name is Bryan Copits. I’m an assistant professor here at Washington University in St. Louis. I started my lab couple of years ago, where we trying to understand how neurons are connected into circuits and also use human tissue for preclinical experiments.
ME: My name’s Michael Eisen. I’m a professor at the University of California in Berkeley in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. I run a lab studying fly developmental biology and dabble in other things. And I was the founder of the Public Library of Science, which is an early effort to try to make science open. And I am more recently the editor-in-chief of eLife, which is doing various experiments in open publishing.
Alexandra Elbakyan: I’m Alexandra, and I’m a PhD student in philosophy. And I am a creator of a website where people can have free access to tens of millions of academic research papers that they would usually otherwise have to pay for. But on my website, they can access them for free.
JM: Great. So let’s get started with some of the questions. So I first wanted to start out talking about how did each of you become interested in the project of making science more open and accessible?
ME: You know, I started science before the internet came along and when we had to go to the library to get papers, and somebody was paying for subscriptions to the journals we had in the library, but it wasn’t really evident to anybody involved in the process, involved in science really. And there were all sorts of limitations to how we could use the literature, but they were largely limitations of technology. You know, we had the printing press and the postal service as our means of creating articles.
And then right as I was a graduate student in a postdoc, the internet came along and science publishers were really early users of the internet. I mean, some of the first websites were websites from science publishers. And you could see in the early days of the internet, this new world where all of the scientific literature was available to anybody with a computer and an internet connection for free and that any scientists could use it to pursue their interests in whatever way they wanted.
But we quickly came up against the fact that publishers didn’t see that that way. What they saw was a chance to make money and a chance to invent new ways to make it more difficult for people to use the scientific literature. In some ways, it became harder to get access to content in the post-internet days than the pre-internet days. And so I, as a postdoc, realized that we had this huge problem in that the structures of science publishing and the structures of science were doing something ludicrous, which was putting, you know, paywalls behind, you know, putting science behind paywalls.And so that, you know, that’s what set me on this journey.
JM: Yeah, that’s really interesting to hear sort of the historical perspective.
AE: I started my baccalaureate studies in 2005. And well, I remember that even when I was back in school and I wanted to read some book about science, I had to go to, of course, I didn’t want to buy it. So I had to go to some website where I could download it for free. So basically some pirate website. And like many years later, when I was working on my research project at the university, and that was like connected to neuroscience, and I started researching for more information about my project, and I encountered that all was paywalled and I didn’t have access. So I saw that there should be some website on the internet or something like torrent, perhaps where I could access or easily download these academic papers for free. But there was no such website. So that was the first time that I, when I was thinking about it, some tool should be created so people can access academic journals for free and easily.
And also it was the time I started reading some research blogs online. And the topic of open access and open science was actively discussed by different researchers. So the whole atmosphere was the consensus was that science should be open and it should be free to access.
BC: Yeah, so I kind of come into it more gradually. And I also kind of grew up always being able to get papers. But from my perspective, there was a lot of time in publishing these, and preparing figures a certain way or telling a story and then redoing them and jumping through a lot of hoops that really, is important to publish the findings, but how much did it really change our conclusions, and how much time did we spend and money spent on that versus moving forward and doing kind of the next step experiments. So I was always a bit frustrated by the fact that it really depended on what you were working on as well, or certain journals and things like that versus just you do good science, get it out there, and kind of let the scientific community be the judge.
JM: So I think that actually takes us nicely into the first thing that I wanted to talk about was, what is the current state of publishing science? Like if you are a researcher and you’ve done these experiments and you want to get them out into the scientific world, can we talk a little bit about what is the current and traditional state of how science publishing works right now?
AE: Well, I would say that today as the Open Access Movement, they made a lot of success in the case that a lot of journals are now offering open access option, and many funders are requiring for new research publications to be open by default. But also there is a problem today that there are low paywalls for readers, but on the other side, there are paywalls for authors. So today you have to pay like crazy amounts of some, like many thousand dollars to be published in open access. And perhaps it’s not the problem for the researchers in the United States or Europe, but in other parts of the world, many people like say are losing open access because of this.
ME: Yeah, just to pop in. I mean, I think still, even though we’re 25 years, we’re 25 years into the internet, the dominant model for publishing is still the one that was invented for the printing press, which is that most journals still, you submit a paper to the journal, they send it out for peer review, they decide, make a decision about whether it belongs in their journal. Something that made sense when you had to print 10,000 copies of a journal and mail them around the world to subscribers, but makes no sense on the internet. And then if they decide to publish it, they put it online, but they only make it available to subscribers. So for journals like that, a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the world has access to it.
Thankfully, Alexandra makes sure that people have access to it anyway, despite the fact that the publishers are putting it behind a paywall. But I should say that I’m a researcher at a very wealthy university in the United States. I use Sci-Hub every day to get access to papers because even in our institution, a large fraction of the papers that I need for my research are not available to me. So I wanna start this by saying thank you for solving a massive problem even for us.
AE: I just wanted to comment that this is also a very popular opinion that you only need to use Sci-Hub only in like in developing countries or in other words, in poor countries. That we don’t need it in wealthy countries such as the United States.
ME: The part that I’ve been involved in that Alexandra was talking about is kind of trying to shift the focus away from paywalls. In an ideal world, the people who fund science would just say, look, it’s absolutely important to making science work that nobody ever has to pay to publish or read. It’s kind of absurd that the costs of publishing aren’t born centrally such that everybody can publish their science and everybody can read their science. But the alternative that arose to subscriptions was to have some kind of upfront payment that covered all the costs that journals incur in the process and to make them freely available. Obviously, in a world where publishers are driven primarily by the motive to make a profit, they’ve turned that into a way to restrict who can publish as opposed to who can read to publish.
So we’re kind of in this terrible world right now where if you’re using traditional journals, you have no real choice but to either force someone else to pay to read your work or pay to have it made open access which is obviously something not everybody has the resources to do. But we’re still in a situation where most scientists feel like they have an obligation to their careers and their students and others to participate in a system that pretty much everybody agrees is terrible.
And in almost 30 years of being involved in this movement, it’s almost unheard of for me to meet a scientist who thinks we do this in a sane way. Everybody thinks the system is stupid. Everybody thinks it’s too expensive, too restrictive, that it’s unfair. Basically only people at extremely wealthy institutions have full access to the scientific literature and full access to being able to publish wherever they want to. It’s an incredible problem for science and it’s kind of an embarrassment that it’s taken us this long to even make small progress.
I mean, making the scientific literature available is absolutely essential to the world. It’s stunning that we’re still having this conversation in 2023 when journals started going online in 1994. And so, yeah.
AE: Yes, but actually about, so you say like basically various good things about Sci-Hub and my work, but I can’t hear this from some official position. So some university would say this or something like that. So Sci-Hub never gets any official recognition anywhere. And even for example, at many universities, the access to Sci-Hub is blocked by the university network.
ME: The fact that institutions aren’t celebrating Sci-Hub tells you pretty much everything you need to know about why the system is so terrible.
AE: Well, I think there can be some kind of political issue here. So Sci-Hub is perceived as being some kind of project connected to Russia and et cetera.
ME: It’s terrible that that’s the view. People should just use Sci-Hub all the time. If everybody just got all their access through Sci-Hub all the time everywhere, the industry would collapse and we’d be in a much better place.
JM: I’m kind of interested to talk to Alexandra a little bit specifically about this. What are some of the challenges that you faced in making this website be available, making science be available?
AE: Well, actually I have been doing a number of talks—talks using Zoom about Sci-Hub. So I have been invited to some universities and to some scholarly societies to talk about Sci-Hub. And that is like very, very, how to say, they ask very often. So this question is often repeated. What kind of challenges I faced and et cetera and et cetera. Well, off the top of my head, I wouldn’t say any. I don’t remember any challenges. I just, my mind doesn’t work that way to remember challenges and think about them. So if you like make your question more specific then perhaps I can answer.
JM: I mean, do—you said that like your university like blocks access. Do you find often that you run into other universities or like governments trying to like take down Sci-Hub or like block access to Sci-Hub?
AE: Well, yes, Sci-Hub is obviously, it’s being blocked in a number of countries including Great Britain and France and Italy and Sweden and Russia, Austria. And perhaps I forgot to mention also some, and also it’s being blocked by some, by universities, they do it on their own. There have been just a number of lawsuits against SciHub in many countries. And yes, after, and after these lawsuits, the SciHub, the access to SciHub was blocked. But I would also mention that SciHub basically never like had any presence in the court. So it was decision by default, by different courts in different countries. And just right now there is an ongoing lawsuit against SciHub and also Library of Genesis as a sister website to SciHub. That is ongoing in India.
ME: Can I actually ask, Alexandra, just on that note, like, so I’ve noticed that the publishers have made it more difficult for you to get access to content recently. Has that, you know, have you seen the publishers respond not just legally, but practically to, yeah, yeah.
JM: So Elsevier, for people who don’t know, is the largest like owner of scientific publications in the U.S., in the world? Are they the largest scientific publisher in the world or?
ME: Yeah, they are.
AE: On the other side, the lucky side is that SciHub already has almost all papers. So the percentage of new papers relative to all those papers that SciHub already downloaded is relatively small.
JM: So then I kind of wanted to talk about what are, there have been some recent developments in the open science sphere in terms of attempts to make science more accessible. Actually, the inspiration for me reaching out to all of you back in the summer was a, I don’t remember if it was an executive order or if it was internal memo from the Biden White House about publicly funded science needing to be publicly available. So can you all talk about what some of the like recent developments in this space are possibly specifically related to the memo and then how that is impacting scientific publishing like currently?
AE: Well, I just wanted to comment. Of course, I’m not an expert on what is happening in the United States, but as far as I know, in the United States, they were discussing the open access issue for about 20 years or even more. But so far, nothing’s changed.
ME: That is a correct diagnosis. I mean, I think that the White House did something positive in saying that, basically setting some ground rules that say that if the public is funding science, the science should be publicly available. And rather than trying to get too much into the weeds of how the industry of publishing works, they kind of just are saying, look, well, if you write a paper and it’s funded by the federal government, that you need to make sure that paper is freely available to people. And how exactly that happens is left to the discretion of the different agencies that are funding science. But I think that, you know, it’s still, we have to wait and see a little bit about how this gets implemented.
And the U.S. government’s approach is, you know, we’ll let the publishers do what they do. We’re not gonna interfere with it per se, but we, you know, the government has a web, has access to the internet. Science authors have access to the internet. And then I hope that what will emerge from that is a kind of parallel system whereby, you know, papers funded by the U.S. government are made freely available by the U.S. government, as opposed to by kind of, you know, negotiating with publishers per se.
I mean, we’ll see. I mean, it’s not yet clear exactly what’s gonna happen, but, you know, there, you know, as Alexandra points out, as long ago as 1999, the NIH was talking about, you know, setting up a parallel infrastructure for publishing that would basically solve all these problems at once. It would be a place where all funded, you know, federally funded research was made available. Peer reviews would be layered on top of it. They wouldn’t be used to restrict who could access it. And that it would be, you know, centrally funded, that it would be treated like infrastructure.
Just like, I mean, just like, you know, I work in genome science. If like, if you had had a world where the genome databases were set up like publishing databases, where every time you wanted to share a sequence, you had to pay. And every time you wanted to download it, you had to download them one at a time and pay a fee, the science that we do in this field would have been impossible. And that exists because the funding agencies of the world see it as a value for science to just fund that centrally.
There’s no reason that that, that they shouldn’t do that for publishing, right? Like rather than fighting SciHub, the governments of the world should be funding SciHub and something like it to create a place where every piece of science is made freely available to everybody. And you can, you can submit your science for free and you can read your science for free. It’s very obvious what we need to do in my mind. It was obvious 25 years ago.
The problem is we’re—just seem incapable of actually, of actually getting there because, you know, in part because publishers are very powerful. They make billions of dollars a year and they have influence in all the places that make decisions about policy. And scientists have been unwilling to break the mold. We, you know, every time you send a paper to any journal that is limited and who can use the resource, either as an author or a reader, you’re continuing the system. And it’s kind of a damning statement about science that it’s not like people aren’t aware of the problem, right? Everybody, we’ve been aware of the problem for almost over a quarter of a century. And yet we’ve been unable to solve it because, I mean, you know, honestly, because of some combination of careerism and profit seeking.
So, you know, I hope that the federal government thing that the Biden administration did, which was a step in the right direction because it says, it establishes a principle, right? Establishing the principle that federally funded research should be free is great, but now they have to execute.
AE: What I would also add is that it was a very good point that you say that many countries should be funding SciHub. And actually, the solution is that this issue should be discussed on the level of the United Nations. In the same way, like climate change is being discussed. Well, I actually have seen that on the United Nations website, they have like this open access pages, some general words about they support the open access, but they never mentioned, for example, SciHub. And it was quite surprising to me why, because SciHub was quite a big event in science, if you measure it by impact. But for the United Nations, it’s like it doesn’t exist at all. This issue doesn’t exist.
ME: I, yeah, I mean, I agree in principle, the UN could do something, but they’ve not, they’ve had many opportunities and they have kind of not delivered. So, you know, probably relying on governments to solve this problem for us in the long run, it’s not the right solution. I mean, like, it’s great. Like Alexandra took it into our own hands. It’s like science has the power to change the way this operates. We’re not, we don’t have to wait for mandates from governments, right? Like this could all be done tomorrow if we chose to. And we don’t, we just don’t choose to.
AE: Okay, but if you look at the history of science, then we have found that it was like basically created by government. So government established this Royal Society of London and et cetera. And then the first academic journal was created and so on.
JM: I mean, I’m interested in, so if, you know, what are some of the barriers that—to science, scientists taking things into their own hands? That’s like outside of the government having to step in and say like, oh, this is how this is going to work, right?
AE: I personally, I try to select open access journal to publish the papers the time required to publish for PhD.
BC: Yeah, and I agree with that. That’s, I mean, that is our goal, but we also operate within a system that awards grants and hiring processes based on some entrenched hierarchy of papers, right? So it’s like, okay, if you, one concern is always, if you go with the open access, then are you going to have those same opportunities as someone who is still going for the traditional model of publishing because that’s what is kind of awarded?
ME: I mean, I know that that’s what everybody does, right? Everybody says, this is about, you know, I have to do this because it’s the best thing for my career. And I’m going to take this choice that’s bad for, that’s bad for, that I know, admit is bad for science and bad for the public. And I’m going to do it because it’s good for my career. If I said the same thing about what field I worked on, if in my grants, I said, you know, what I really want to work on is this wacky, this wacky organism, but I’m going to, I’m going to work on, I’m going to work on this particular subject, whatever field it is, I’m going to study this problem, even though I think it’s a dumb problem. And I think working on this problem isn’t actually good for the world, but I’m going to do it because it’s good for my career, right? If we, if we justified our science that way, we wouldn’t do any science. We wouldn’t ever do anything useful, even though probably to some small extent, that’s true in the way that people choose problems.
I’ve just always been curious why people are so comfortable sort of throwing, throwing science and the system under the bus in the names of their careers around publishing when they wouldn’t do it so much, they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it in other, in other areas, right? So what I’m interested in hearing is like why, why people feel so comfortable rationalizing their publishing behavior in explicitly careerist terms that, and they’re not in kind of almost any other area of science, right?
BC: I think one of the things we’ve talked about a lot is trying, I think, in a way to strike a balance between those two, to not, you know, that there’s eventually you want it to shift all to being completely open access, but starting to move the needle in that direction, I think, with the new generation of younger scientists and students that are growing up with this discussion front and center, it starts to shift the conversation. It’s not going to happen overnight by our lab deciding to only do that, but-
ME: Why not? Why not? Like, seriously. But like, I am curious why, why people don’t think we could just change it overnight if we could, right?
JM: It would take sort of a massive coordination. Like you’d need to get a, at least a plurality if not a majority of people doing science in, you know, the nations that are producing the largest amount of like scientific output to all decide like, we’re not going to do this.
ME: Why do you think that? Like, why, like, seriously, why don’t we all just, like, if we all just said, this is dumb, or like 10 of us, or 20, or 30, or 50, or however many said it was dumb and started to do it differently. I mean, this is a viral world.
JM: What I wanted to get to is like, how do, how does this change? And so I think it’s worth exploring, like, if this changes, and you know, I like the idea of changing from the ground up, I agree.
BC: But will it, actually.
JM: I think there’s a reason it hasn’t, and I was going to add in too, that in terms of like, you know, the generation coming up, I think this links into the issue of like, you’ve got all of these like, you know, idealistic young scientists who are doing their PhDs, right? And there’s a huge like drop-off to who actually gets to get to the faculty level. And it seems, at least from where I’m standing, that in order to do that, you have to be sort of careerist, right? Like I’ve seen a lot of people leave their PhD or leave their postdoc or decide not to do a postdoc, because they perceive that structure of how science is working is going to require them to do things that they don’t want to do or think are ethical or correct or whatever.
ME: Right, but I mean, I think there’s two answers to that question. First of all, I think people vastly overestimate the influence that papers have on careers. Not that it has no influence, but I think that, you know, there are a lot of things that influence people’s careers, including, you know, where they trained and what they work on and who their advisor was and things like that. I think it’s not true that you need high-impact publications to get ahead in science.
Nobody does the experiment, right? Nobody with papers that would get published in high-impact journals routinely shuns them or very few people do. And so we’re scientists. We don’t have a control here. We mistake the fact that there’s a correlation between where people publish and what jobs they get for causality. That has never been established, first of all.
And second of all, even if it were established, I don’t understand why, I really do not understand why we accept that, why as scientists who try to change the way the world works and, you know, change the way people think about science and change the way science works as a career, we’re unable and unwilling to tackle this problem. I think it’s deeper than just that the system tells you you have to do it. People are unwilling to tackle this problem. They’re unwilling to absorb anything that looks like a risk to their careers or even a possible risk to their careers to change publishing, whereas that they are willing to absorb risks to their careers for all sorts of other reasons. So there’s something deeper and something more fundamental about this that I think then just simply saying, well, I have to do it to advance my career.
AE: I would actually, from what I know, it’s like not actually the matter of career, but the matter of funding. So the better papers you have published, the better your chances to get your next research project funded or—so that is all controlled by government money in the end.
ME: In some places it’s true, in some cases it’s not true. And I think that even if it were true, I think people have the, you know, we have it, like those decisions are at some level made by scientists too, right? Like not everywhere, but in most countries, funding decisions are made by scientists at some level. And so if that’s true, which it is partially true, it’s because we make it true.
AE: Yeah, but I would just add that the problem is that academic publications today basically is the only objective measure for researchers. So it’s like, you can simply count the number of citations, the number of publications, the impact factor of journals. And so you can measure the researchers in a, like say, some kind of a reliable way. Otherwise the system would collapse because you cannot like just assign funding or make decisions about hiring someone just because you like this person or you don’t like this person.
ME: Sure, I think that’s true, but you don’t, but this idea that we need to have this business of publishing be this, be the way it is in order to accomplish that goal is flawed, right? The right model before us solves both of these problems at once, right? The right model is one where authors publish their work in something like Arxiv, SciHub, whatever you wanna call it. Authors have control over their papers until they sign away the copyright. If you don’t do that, then you never, you can make the papers freely available. So you create a place where everybody publishes everything for free, whatever costs there are, which will be small, would be borne by governments in proportion to how much they fund science or some formula that’s fair. And then everybody can publish for free and everybody can read for free.
Then that becomes the template for peer reviews of all sorts of types and whatever you wanna happen, rankings, groupings, all those things are done independent of some anachronistic decision as to whether or not a paper belongs in a particular journal. That’s the internet, right? That’s how the vast majority of the internet works is people post stuff for free, people access stuff for free, and somebody’s paying obviously, but things get rated, you get grouped, you get lists.
There is an infrastructure and a facility in the world with organizing and ranking and finding the flaws in information that’s independent of a $10 billion a year publishing industry. The thing is we don’t need this industry. The industry is an obstacle. All of the work, essentially all the work, all the value is done by scientists for free. And the fact that we haven’t figured out a way to organize our effort in a manner that doesn’t require that we pay tons of money to publishers and limit who can participate in one way or another, it’s not necessary, right? We could solve this problem if we wanted to.
AE: Yes, I just want to tell that I wouldn’t be so much optimistic about internet because today we see that internet became dominated by large monopolistic corporations such as YouTube and social media and they basically control and send them how information flows. So it’s not the kind of thing that we want.
ME: I agree. We don’t want science publishing to become Twitter and YouTube and things like that, right? It doesn’t have to. That’s also a choice that people made to let it go that way. There is still lots of parts of the internet that function in a sane and civil manner although there are fewer of them.
It’s the same problem, right? Once profit motive takes over the way that things are governed, they go in directions that aren’t in the interests of the users. And so we’ve let that happen in publishing, right? We’ve clearly already established that we’ve given over what’s best for science to what’s best for publishers. I agree that just saying, well, we don’t need anybody let’s throw it all up on the internet and let the internet sort it out also isn’t a solution. Chaos isn’t the answer, but that doesn’t mean that we’re anywhere near the right solution now, right? We can do it better.
BC: I think one of the challenges here that I see is that if you’re making a decision on personnel, or you’re on a study section, there’s a bit that almost makes it easier, I guess, sometimes. I’m not saying it’s right, but to look at the name of a journal or a certain tier of paper, say, okay, they make a certain cutoff, right? Because it’s much more difficult. I would argue this is what we should do but it’s more difficult to actually read the science that was out of your field and decide whether it’s conducted in a rigorous way.
If you have a hundred applicants or 20 grants on a study section, I think talking to a lot of colleagues there’s reluctance there to, not that that’s what we should do, but that-
ME: Does the fact that somebody at some other journal who you don’t necessarily know made a decision to accept a paper for a journal tell you that either? It doesn’t, right? So if you want your life to be easy, I can just assign a random score to every paper and we can just reward science based on that.
AE: In ancient Greece, they had a democracy system where they just randomly assigned people to different positions and it worked.
ME: For a while.
It always comes back to this, what are we trying to accomplish with publishing, right? Even if it were true that we needed a hierarchy of journals and a traditional publishing system and assigning journal names to accomplish all these things. And even if it was in your best interests as a scientist to publish in these journals to navigate the system, doesn’t the fact that it’s just terrible for the public and terrible for science as a whole, shouldn’t that be what governs our behavior?
It is true that these conversations always get back to, I have to do it this way because it’s good for my career or my student’s career or something, or we can’t do peer review at grant panels without journal titles. All these are very parochial, little concern, right? Not that your concerns about your career is little, it’s just they’re very local.
I think we spend way too little time talking about how the structure of publishing keeps science, help hold science back. Ultimately, we are serving the public good, right? I think we should ask ourselves the question, if you took away all these concerns about careers and the mechanics of advancing in your careers and deciding who gets grants for a second and ask what system is best for the public that we serve, and then try to engineer in the right career incentives and the right structures for making grants, I think we’d be better off. We should be working backwards from that to say like, okay, our goal is to make everything completely freely available to everybody. And that means both that you don’t need Sci Hub, to access it, it’s just all there. Maybe Sci Hub becomes the place you access it, but everything’s there without paywalls. It also means that nobody ever has to pay to publish, right? These are two barriers we’ve erected in publishing.
You immediately get to the question of who pays for it, right? I think it’s clear that that has to be paid for by the same people who fund science. Even if you spend $10 billion a year on publishing, it’s still a small fraction of the total. And also note, they’re already paying it.
AE: But when you just tell people that everything must be free, it’s immediately, they immediately answer that it is impossible, somebody has to pay.
ME: Sure, the governments have to pay, right? Like, there’s lots of things we get access to for free that somebody pays for. Nobody charges me to walk on the sidewalk, but somebody’s paying for it, right? It’s free at some level, but it’s not free to do. If society is better because science is working at peak efficiency, then this should be a no-brainer.
JM: We are starting from what is best for the advancement of science and the public good, and then building in how do we get there. I wanna talk about how you have to structure something like that. If we agree that’s where we have to end up, how do you actually go about getting there?
ME: I mean, people have proposed answers to this for a long time, and probably there is no right answer. There’s many different ways you can do it. But something that looks like a place where you can just post your science for free, and it’s immediately available for free to everybody. So something along the lines of a pre-print server where everything, you know, there’s some filtering to make sure that it’s actually science and not advertising or pornography or whatever else, you know, you don’t wanna post there, right? There’s some screen to make sure that what is being submitted is an actual work of science, so it belongs in the place.
If you did that, we know that that costs a tiny fraction of total publishing, right? If you have something like BioRxiv or something, which at its most expensive costs $100 a paper, which is extreme, you’re still spending, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars instead of $10 billion on the infrastructure, right? Even if you went to the absolute gold standard of like, you know, really paying someone to copy edit everything and do all this work to go in there, it’s still way less than the $5,000 per paper we currently pay kind of at the level of the whole system.
So the basic infrastructure seems obvious, which is a place where everybody can publish their work and everybody can get access to it for free, and it’s funded centrally. Like any big country’s science budget could absorb the entire cost of that as a rounding error, right, this is a rounding error in the US science budget. I don’t think it should only be funded by the US because I think it should be owned collectively by scientists across the world. So every country that funds science should pitch in in proportion to the amount of science they fund.
Then you need a separate system to, I agree with Alexandra, if you don’t want this to become YouTube where like nasty comments rule the way and it’s all a popularity contest, there’s like a lot of problems with that too, but we already do peer review. I don’t think we do it in a particularly good way, but there’s nothing that stops us from then assembling on the side of this system. We could reconstruct the entire current publishing infrastructure where we assign papers to journals if we want to on top of a free thing. We’re just, you’re just adding a label to the paper. A journal is just a label you put on the paper. I think that’s a dumb way to do it, but you could easily do that.
But we could change the whole system and solve these access problems overnight just simply by changing the way we organize the process.
AE: Yes, I just wanted to ask about peer review. So if you just, everyone just publishes whatever they want. For example, every university, they just start uploading as they, because the papers the researchers write, they just start uploading to their university website. And then there will be chaos because it’s all, you won’t be peer reviewed, and so there will be no method to select.
ME: So how do you, so how would you do peer, like an easy way to do peer review in that system is to say that we’re gonna fund scientific societies to carry out peer review in their field. They already do it with their journals. They just don’t do it for all their papers, right? So I’m a member of the Genetics Society of America and they could peer review all papers in genetics. That’s how it was before the rise of modern publishing. There were scientific societies that organized publishing in their field.
Again, I think there’s some inefficiencies and other things in that world, but there’s nothing that stops us from doing, because I agree with Alexandra, you need some way for scientists to convey their judgment on papers to their colleagues because it’s useful. That’s how science progresses. It’s not like we just want an undifferentiated mass of 2 million papers every year that you have to wade through on your own. We can organize peer review far better if we just say, here’s a group of people, or multiple groups. It doesn’t have to be just one genetic society. We can have four genetic societies, all of which were reviewing papers in their field. And you’d get a multitude of views on the work too. It would be much better than the current, whatever three reviewers we happened to pick at the time the paper was published, making the decision that lasts an eternity about how important the work is, right?
AE: This society, how is it going to select, which for example, they have like about a million of new papers about genetics published on preprint archives, and how they’re going to select which papers they should peer review?
ME: We do it, right? But we do it already, right? Those papers all get peer reviewed, right? So those 2 million papers all get peer reviewed. So yes, it’s like, the answer is they wouldn’t select.
AE: So this mechanism is that the author, the authors will select the journal and send the paper to the selected journal for peer review. So basically today, every journal is a small society. And so we have like, today we have like thousands of different societies.
ME: Yeah, 50,000 or something, yeah. That’s clearly too many, right? And the fact that papers bounce from one journal to another is inefficient and silly. But the core truth is, we do manage to find peer reviewers for virtually all of those papers. We just do it in a very ineffective and inefficient way. We have ideas, other people have ideas about how to match papers to peer reviewers and make sure that every paper gets peer reviewed fairly. And right, there are ways you could do that that are better than what we currently do, which is you send it to a journal and then the journal goes and begs people to peer review the paper until they get two or three people to do it. And then, right, this system is not working.
BC: I guess to the point of badges, that’s, you know, something that… So one of the things we do, we start—when we started, Jamie joined the lab when I first started, but we had that conversation and we try to do things differently, at least within what we can control within our lab and make those decisions. And I’ve seen kind of locally within our department, decisions being made that don’t hold those badges always in as high esteem.
I don’t know what the answer is to it, but some way to de-incentivize that. And it takes more effort to read the paper, but it’s not just like, oh, if you don’t have a paper in journal X, Y, and Z, you don’t even make the cut, right?
ME: I’ve sat on hiring committees for 20 plus years. I’ve never seen a person hired because they had a paper in a particular journal. It never happens, right?
BC: But you see people not hired because…
ME: I’ve never seen people not hired. I don’t think, I mean, I think it is possible that there are people who would have gotten, perhaps been scrutinized more if they had had, if the work that they had currently, that they’d actually done was published in a different journal. I’m sure we’ve overlooked some good candidates in some cases because of journals, but we’ve overlooked more good candidates because they didn’t come from the right institution. We’ve overlooked more good candidates because they didn’t work in a field that people found interesting at the time, right?
Like, yes, it’s true that, you know, like there is, you have to get attention at some level. We get hundreds of applications and everybody who succeeds at any stage in the process has gotten somebody’s attention somehow, either because the problem they’re working on sounds really exciting or because the, you know, they know the lab’s research that they’re coming from, the lab that they’re coming from, and they’ve like have a good track record for producing, you know, strong scientists, or, you know, they recognize something in their CV that they found interesting, you know.
It is not like we sit there in the room and say, oh, this one has a Nature paper, put them in the new pile. It’s just not what happens. It might catch your eye, but I would also point out that like, it’s already getting a paper like that in a high profile journal is already past a million bars that, right, like the same things go on in selecting papers for high profile journals. The screening is highly correlated.
I don’t think it would be that different. And indeed, I’ve long advocated for doing this, that we should just strip journal names from the CVs of people when we’re doing the initial screening and just see what pops out. I don’t honestly don’t think it would be that different. And I think it wouldn’t be that different because those journals are already like echoing the biases and tastes of science.
It’s very, very rare in my experience for somebody who doesn’t tick any of the other boxes that would get you noticed, for them to pop on our screen solely because they had a high impact paper, right? It has happened, but it’s a very unusual, it’s very unusual. And by the time they’re actually scrutinized as candidates, we’re not judging them on where their papers were published.
So I think people tend to overestimate how much of a role this plays in careers. And again, largely because they’re confusing correlation and causation. It is true that there’s a correlation between where people publish and where they get jobs, but that’s because they’re basically two different ways of saying the same thing.
JM: I also, I think that brings up an interesting question for new models of disseminating scientific research, which is say we had something that seems very sort of egalitarian where everybody can sort of post their research paper on a kind of archive. And then, in addition to possibly incentivizing some kind of like formal peer review, there’s also the ability for scientists to just go and like put, I’m in this field and this is what I think of this paper. How I can envision papers that are from people at high ranking institutions then, or papers that are from very well established labs sort of floating to the top of some kind of system like that, which already happens. So granted this is-
ME: Right, like you’ve just described, you just described journal publishing, right?
JM: It’s not any worse than what’s currently going on, but I think we would like that not to happen. So I guess like if we’re thinking about how to do publishing better, is there a way to sort of de-emphasize those sort of traditional ideas of like prestige?
ME: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s tricky, but I do think we can, like it should be as strong a goal as making stuff free for participation in both a reader and an author. It should be a goal to make sure that science is judged on its merits, not by its authors, right? And I think that we have exacerbated the problem of judging people based on who they are, not what they’ve done with the current publishing system. But obviously it doesn’t mean that you just snap your fingers and you get a system that’s better.
Obviously like papers that get attention on Twitter are not necessarily from high profile labs, but they’re from high profile people, which is not always a step in the right direction. I would say it’s not a step in the right direction. So it is a little bit more democratizing that if you’re a scientist who’s not at a traditional top tier institution, but has a good following, has built a good following on Twitter, they can get their work noticed more easily on Twitter with a preprint than they can in a high profile journal. Like I think, so it is different.
What I spend my time doing now is trying to take traditional publishing and graft—and move it into this world. And part of the reason is I think we don’t, I do think we should have full participation in peer review in the sense that everybody who has a view on a paper should have a very clear and easy way to convey it through making, without, it has to be filtered through the lens of being fair and on point. But I do think we would be far better off if every time somebody read a paper and had something interesting to say about it, they had a mechanism, not just a mechanism to share it, but some confidence that people would pay attention to what they have to say and that that gets integrated into some kind of growing consensus around the work.
But I also think that it is valuable to have people, have a layer of, I think of it as kind of grownups in the room kind of thing, like people who take it upon themselves to solve that problem, to be fair, to look for papers that are interesting irrespective of who’s written them and to try to do exactly, to aspire at least, to do what we wanna do here, which is to judge all papers based on their contents, not on anything else.
I think we haven’t yet done it, but I think we should all start playing around with blind peer reviews and things that are hard to do, but parts of the peer review process can be blinded to author identity and institution. And there’s ways that I think we can do a lot better to make sure that we’re not missing good science.
And then maybe we can also, I mean, it’s outside of the publishing scope, but the real problem that comes up in a lot of nowadays in terms of biases is our expectations as scientists are that we’re judging people with infinite resources. When we look at a paper, it’s not unusual to ask people to do $100,000 worth of experiments in peer review, right? And if someone’s budget for doing science is far more limited, our expectations are the biggest barrier to their participation, right? If what it takes to do a paper in neuroscience now is to have access to a two-photon microscope, well, journal publishing is not the problem. The fact that we are wildly disproportionate distribution of resources is the problem.
So I think we should do whatever we can to correct that in publishing, but we’re not gonna solve all the problems of inequitability in science just simply through publishing, right? I think we often look to publishing to solve problems in science that are just deeper than who gets published where.
BC: An important thing to keep in mind too when we’re going through that peer review process is not just the cost, but how many times, it’s been rare that the fundamental conclusion of a paper has been changed because we’ve jumped through a lot more hoops and made things flashier, but it doesn’t often happen in my limited experience so far that fundamental conclusions change.
ME: Yeah, I mean, look, this is kind of what we’re trying to get at at eLife now, which is to say, I do think having people read your papers and commenting on it is useful to the authors as well as to readers. I’m not, this part of science where you read other people’s work and you think about it and you comment on it and you make suggestions and you build your own—It’s like absolutely integral to science completely. So the question isn’t really like, should we do that? We should do more of it. The question is, how do you convey the results of that and in what context are those results conveyed?
I think we have to move away from a world where the journals are deciding what is and isn’t included in papers, what is and isn’t worth communicating to the world and leave that in the hands of authors and let the journals decide or editors or peer review, whatever this moves to, to comment on it.
JM: I’m curious to hear from Bryan, from your perspective as an early career researcher and someone who cares a lot about open science, what are your thoughts on sort of where science publishing needs to go and what do you think would work in terms of where we can get to?
BC: It would be great if tomorrow we could all just agree on this and then maybe that’s a better way forward, but I don’t see it happening that way. The reluctance too is, you know, make it into this position and then it’s precarious to navigate the next step. So I’m not sure, it might be easier, you know, 20 years from now. We do have to try. And so anything that moves the needle, I think is progress and this is a slow ship to turn. I don’t think it’s gonna all of a sudden do a 180. It would be great if it did, but, you know.
So what we do is kind of internally within the lab, what do we have control over? And so we make decisions, try to make decisions that align with our beliefs and what we feel is the direction we want to go, but also that each person in the lab is allowed to make that decision themselves too. Like we’ll talk through it about pros and cons for this to happen, ultimately it’s that trainee’s career as well. And if they feel that they’re going to be hurt, I’m not going to mandate that they do things a certain way.
So then that’s kind of how I’ve approached it, and I’m just starting out here, but I think that there also needs to be acknowledgement from, I guess, more senior people that this is a direction to go to that, that, you know, that postdoc in the lab feels like the, like you mentioned before, that the faculty committee that’s gonna judge their application isn’t going to exclude them if they don’t have that paper from journal X, Y, and Z. And getting that information out there to reassure people that this isn’t essential, right? That you can make it without that. It is going to gradually kind of turn the tide, I hope.
JM: I hope too, like there can be, cause I think getting back to a topic we were talking about a lot earlier, that there’s still the perception among trainees that this is important.
ME: I think the current generation of young scientists are less optimistic about changing it than we were. And I, you know, I don’t know. I mean, I understand like the world’s like more difficult to navigate careers and things in science now. So like, if anything, we’re heading in the wrong direction in that regard. There’s gonna have to be some kind of shakeup for that to change. And so I don’t know exactly what that looks like.
Some things are good. Like the rise of BioRxiv has been good. Like we’re going in the right directionand the rise of SciHub is good. Like the world’s better in many ways. The arc is right, but that changing the culture of science is just, it’s no, we’re worse off than we were 25 years ago. People are more enthralled with journal titles than they were when the internet came along. Like things are more, journals have more power in the way people think than they used to.
You know, I don’t know exactly what the solution is, but I do think we have to keep on kind of, we have to keep on pushing. It doesn’t happen naturally.
JM: So I guess on that note, the question I’d like to end on for each of you then is to keep it on a note of, if not optimism, at least like what we can do to keep pushing forward. Like what are your wrap-up thoughts on like what we as scientists and consumers of science and can do to push this culture in a more positive direction?
BC: Yeah, so I think it’s kind of the points that I’ve already, it’s what can I influence or control with my tiny amount of power in this position and to do the most to do things there. And then I think that kind of spreads across the departments or, you know, it can be, oh, well, that lab’s doing that. And again, I’m sure it’s a slow turn of the ship to gradually bring things towards, in the direction that you want it.
ME: Yeah, I mean, I think probably underestimate your influence. Right, you’re talking to all the people you, who are your colleagues and who you train and who you work with, right? If you do something and it reaches one person, like it’s good, right? Like I think the ship isn’t really turnable. I think parts of the ship have to be discarded and blown up, right?
Like I think that what has been my most sobering kind of observation over time is that it’s not good enough to just say, okay, here’s a problem. Like I thought like really naively at the very beginning that like, as I had been unaware of the problems of like the economics of publishing before the internet came along, like I just figured, well, we’re scientists. We see problems. All we have to do is really make people aware that there’s a problem and we’ll fix it. Okay, that clearly didn’t happen.
It also is really difficult to like, people want, you know, people want the institutions of science to make, to change the rules basically, to say now it’s okay to publish in, right? Like if the NIH just said tomorrow, we’re stripping journal titles off of anything in our grant reviews, that would change. Like there’s things that could happen at an institutional level, but the institutions look at the scientists and say, well, the scientists don’t want this. They’re not asking for this. They’re like, yeah, sure, there’s Mike Eisen. He’s screaming at me for 25 years, but like, you know, he’s not representative, but we haven’t successfully accomplished is for there to be a like a kind of demand for the system to change from people that is heard by institutions.
So like where we’ve made progress in institutions, it’s been because of kind of individuals seeing it as a really important thing to do within the context of their job, which, you know, by and large happened at a place like HHMI and funders who like have a little bit more flexibility to move quickly and say, okay, we think now it’s not in our interest to do this. The NIH stuff was long simmering, right? It took 25 years of getting members of Congress to insert things into funding language for the government and lobbyists who are, you know, whispering in the ears of the right people and different administrations to try to get them to care about this as an issue. It took a long time to get to a place where now like there’s some hope for things to change.
And yet by and large, scientific community has been silent about this, right? Like there haven’t been like a broad campaign to say, yeah, this is great. We need you to do this, right? Like it costs nothing for scientists to say, yeah, it would be great if the NIH actually did this, right? Like if the NIH actually made it so that we all playing under a different set of rules.
Ultimately, that’s what people want, right? I don’t think this is the best solution, but they want the rules to change for them. So the NIH could do that, but they’re not hearing from anybody saying, hey, you know what? We’d be all better off if the rules changed. Can you please do this, right? What they’re hearing from is publishers saying, you’re gonna strip us of our revenue. They’re hearing from scientific society saying, you know, we’ve been established for 150 years and our journal is important for our revenue stream. And if you do this, you’re gonna undermine our, right? They hear from people who want this not happen. And very infrequently do they hear from scientists who want this to happen.
So honestly, like if it were clearer to the people who make decisions in government funding agencies, that this is something that scientists want, I think it would happen. And I think that right now, they can excuse all manner of slow action and stuff under the idea that this is just not, it’s not popular in the community. And I think that this is what I was trying to get at with this thing that like we accept this. There’s no sense anywhere that the community wants a different system. And you know, if people want it fixed, they need, we need it to be more visible that we want this system to be different.
Students can have an influence locally and globally by like really making it uncomfortable for their institutions to continue operating in the way that they do. I’ve been really impressed by like what students have done to try to make the culture of labs better. Like there’s, there is power out there. It just has to be exercised.
JM: Well, I think with that, we’re going to leave this discussion. As we were saying, we could probably keep talking about this for hours and hours.
Thank you both and thank you to Alexandra who unfortunately had to get off the call for joining us for this round table. And thank you to all of you watching live on YouTube.
And yeah, with that, we’ll see you for the next episode of In Plain English.