As explained in careful detail over at Stupid Patent of the Month, Elsevier has applied for, and been granted, a patent for online peer-review. The special sauce that persuaded the US Patent Office that this is a new invention is cascading peer review — an idea so obvious and so well-established that even The Scholarly Kitchen was writing about it as a commonplace in 2010.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can't verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can’t verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Well. What can this mean?

A cynic might think that this is the first step an untrustworthy company would take preparatory to filing a lot of time-wasting and resource-sapping nuisance lawsuits on its smaller, faster-moving competitors. They certainly have previous in the courts: remember that they have brought legal action their own customers as well as threatening Academia.edu and of course trying to take Sci-Hub down.

Elsevier representatives are talking this down: Tom Reller has tweeted “There is no need for concern regarding the patent. It’s simply meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied” — which would be fine, had their proprietary waterfall system not been itself copied from the ample prior art. Similarly, Alicia Wise has said on a public mailing list “People appear to be suggesting that we patented online peer review in an attempt to own it.  No, we just patented our own novel systems.” Well. Let’s hope.

But Cathy Wojewodzki, on the same list, asked the key question:

I guess our real question is Why did you patent this? What is it you hope to market or control?

We await a meaningful answer.

When a paper goes for peer-review at PLOS ONE, the reviewers are told not to make any judgement about how important or sexy or “impacty” the paper is — to judge it only on methodical soundness. All papers that are judged sound are to be published without making guesses about which will and won’t improve the journal’s reputation through being influential down the line. (Such guesses are hopelessly inaccurate anyway.)

When PLOS ONE was new, this approach drew scorn from established publishers, but now those publishers all have their own journals that use similar editorial criteria (Nature’s Scientific Reports, AAAS‘s Science Advances, Elsevier’s first attempt, Elsevier’s second attempt, the Royal Society’s Royal Society Open Science). Those editorial criteria have proved their worth.

But what are we going to call this style of peer-review?

It’s not a new problem. I discussed it with with David Crotty three years ago without reaching any very satisfactory conclusion. But three years have not really helped us much as we try to agree on a term for this increasingly important and prevalent model.

What are the options on the table?

PLOS ONE-style peer-review. It’s a cumbersome term, and it privileges PLOS ONE when that is now far from the only journal to use this approach to peer-review (and may not even have been first).

Peer-review Lite. A snide term coined by people who wanted PLOS ONE to fail. It’s not a good description, and it carries baggage.

Scientific peer-review. This one came up in the discussion with David Crotty, but it’s not really acceptable because it would leave us still needing a term for what the Open Library of Humanities does.

Objective peer-review. This is the term that was used at the Royal Society meeting at the start of this week — the idea being that you review objectively for the quality of the research, but don’t make a subjective judgement of its importance. Several people didn’t like this on the grounds that even the “objective” half is inevitably subjective.

Any others that I missed?

I don’t have a good solution to propose to this problem; but I think it’s getting more urgent that we do solve it. We have to have a simple, unambiguous, universally understood term to understand a model of peer-review that is becoming increasingly pervasive and may well end up as the dominant form of peer-review.

Plough in — comments are open!

Update, 6pm

Liz Wager asked a very similar question four years ago, over on the BMJ blog: what to call the journals that use this approach to peer-review. Terms that she mentions include:

  • “bias to publish” (from BioMed Central)
  • “non-selective” (her own coinage, which she doesn’t like)
  • “bumboat” (I can’t explain this one, you’ll have to read the article)
  • “author-driver” or “author-focused” publication (AFP for short)
  • “search-located” (which she coins, the dismisses as tautologous)
  • “unconventional” or “non-traditional” (discarded as disparaging)
  • “non-discriminatory”, “impartial” or “unprejudiced”
  • “general” (dismissed as a non-starter)
  • “broad-spectrum” (inapplicable to specialised journals)

And then in the comments various people proposed:

  • “below the fold” journals
  • “omnivorous” (I quite like that one)
  • “alternative”
  • “Voldermortian journals”, which I don’t understand at all.
  • “Unfiltered”, contrasted with “filtered”
  • “inclusive”, contrasted with “exclusive” (I quite like this, too)
  • “high volume low hassle”

But there’s no conclusion or preferred term.

There’s been some concern over Scientific Reports‘ new scheme whereby authors submitting manuscripts can pay $750 to have them peer-reviewed more quickly. Some members of the editorial board have quit over this development, feeling that it’s unfair to authors who can’t pay. Myself, I feel it at least shows admirable audacity — NPG has found a way to monetise its own lethargy, which is surely what capitalism is all about.

The real problem with this scheme is that $750 is an awful lot to gamble, as a sort of “pre-APC”, at a point when you don’t know whether your article is actually going to be published or not. If the peer-review returns an unfavourable verdict it’s just money down the drain.

So I welcome today’s announcement that, for only a slightly higher payment of a round $1000, it’s now possible to bypass peer-review completely, and move directly to publication. This seems like a much fairer deal for authors, and of course it streamlines the publication process yet further. Now authors can obtain the prestigious Nature Publishing Group imprint in a matter of a couple of days.

Onward and upward!

Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).

Figure 4. Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Figure 4: Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)

The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:

28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication

TOTAL 49 days

Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.

At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!

Screenshot from 2014-12-23 10:39:34

 

A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.

Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!

Despite the flagrant trolling of its title, Nature‘s recent opinion-piece Open access is tiring out peer reviewers is mostly pretty good. But the implication that the rise of open-access journals has increased the aggregate burden of peer-review is flatly wrong, so I felt obliged to leave a comment explaining why. Here is that comment, promoted to a post of its own (with minor edits for clarity):


 

Much of what is said here is correct and important. Although it would be nice if Nature could make a bit more of an effort to avoid the obvious conflict-of-interest issues that lead it to title the piece so misleadingly as an attack on open access. I am glad that so many of the other commenters on this piece saw straight through that rather snide piece of propaganda.

Only one important error of interpretation here, I think. I quote:

The rise of the open-access (OA) movement compounds this effect [i.e. the increasing number of articles needing peer-review.] The business case for online OA journals, to which authors pay submission fees, works best at high volume. And for many of these journals, submitted work is published as long as it is methodologically sound. It does not have to demonstrate, for example, the novelty or societal relevance that some traditional journals demand.

The implication is that journals of this kind (PLOS ONE, PeerJ, the various Frontiers journals) increase the total peer-review burden. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. They greatly reduce the the total amount of peer reviewing.

It’s an open secret that nearly every paper eventually gets published somewhere. Under the old regime, the usual approach is to “work down the ladder”, submitting the same paper repeatedly to progressively less prestigious journals until it reached one that was prepared to publish work of the supplied level of sexiness. As a result, many papers go through four, five or more rounds of peer-review before finally finding a home. Instead, such papers when submitted to a review-for-soundness-only venue such as PLOS ONE require only a single round of review. (Assuming of course that they are indeed methodologically sound!)

The rise of review-for-soundness-only journals (“megajournals”) is an unequivocal improvement in the scientific publishing landscape, and should be welcomed by all parties: authors, who no longer have to submit to the monumental waste of time and effort that is the work-down-the-ladder system; readers, who get access to new research much more quickly; and editors and reviewers who no longer have to burn hours re-reviewing and re-re-reviewing perfectly good papers that have already been repeatedly rejected for a perceived lack of glamour.

In a comment on the last post, Mark Robinson asked an important question:

You linked to the preprint of your The neck of Barosaurus was not only longer but also wider than those of Diplodocus and other diplodocines submission – does this mean that it has not yet been formally published?

As so often in these discussions, it depends what we mean by our terms. The Barosaurus paper, like this one on neck cartilage, is “published” in the sense that it’s been released to the public, and has a stable home at a well known location maintained by a reputable journal. It’s open for public comment, and can be cited in other publications. (I notice that it’s been cited in Wikipedia). It’s been made public, which after all is the root meaning of the term “publish”.

On the other hand, it’s not yet “published” in the sense of having been through a pre-publication peer-review process, and perhaps more importantly it’s not yet been made available via other channels such as PubMed Central — so, unlike say our previous PeerJ paper on sauropod neck anatomy, it would in some sense go away if PeerJ folded or were acquired by a hostile entity. But then the practical truth is of course that we’d just make it directly available here on SV-POW!, where any search would find it.

In short, the definition of what it means for a paper to be “published” is rather fluid, and is presently in the process of drifting. More than that, conventions vary hugely between fields. In maths and astronomy, posting a preprint on arXiv (their equivalent of PeerJ Preprints, roughly) pretty much is publication. No-one in those fields would dream of not citing a paper that had been published in that way, and reputations in those fields are made on the basis of arXiv preprints. [Note: I was mistaken about this, or at least oversimplified. See David Roberts’ and Michael Richmond’s comments below.]

Maybe the most practical question to ask about the published-ness or otherwise of a paper is, how does it affect the author’s job prospects? When it comes to evaluation by a job-search panel, or a promotion committee, or a tenure board, what counts? And that is a very hard question to answer, as it depends largely on the institution in question, the individuals on the committee, and the particular academic field. My gut feeling is that if I were looking for a job in palaeo, the Barosaurus preprint and this cartilage paper would both count for very little, if anything. But, candidly, I consider that a bug in evaluation methods, not a problem with pre-printing per se. But then again, it’s very easy for me to say that, as I’m in the privileged position of not needing to look for a job in palaeo.

For Matt and me, at least as things stand right now, we do feel that we have unfinished business with these papers. In their present state, they represent real work and a real (if small) advance in the field; but we don’t feel that our work here is done. That’s why I submitted the cartilage paper for peer-review at the same time as posting it as a preprint (it’s great that PeerJ lets you do both together); and it’s why one of Matt’s jobs in the very near future will be getting the Barosaurus revised in accordance with the very helpful reviews that we received, and then also submitted for peer-review. We do still want that “we went through review” badge on our work (without believing it means more than it really does) and the archiving in PubMed Central and CLOCKSS, and the removal of any reason for anyone to be unsure whether those papers “really count”.

But I don’t know whether in ten years, or even five, our attitude will be the same. After all, it changed long ago in maths and astronomy, where — glory be! — papers are judged primarily on their content rather than on where they end up published.

 

Last night, I submitted a paper for publication — for the first time since April 2013. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like. But, because we’re living in the Shiny Digital Future, you don’t have to wait till it’s been through review and formal publication to read it. I submitted to PeerJ, and at the same time, made it available as a preprint (Taylor 2014).

It’s called “Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”, and frankly the results are weird. Here’s a taste:

Taylor (2014:figure 3). Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018. Images of vertebra from Gilmore (1936:plate XXIV). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 1. If the slightly sub-horizontal osteological neutral pose of Stevens and Parrish (1999) is correct, then the cartilaginous neutral pose would be correspondingly slightly lower than depicted here, but still much closer to the elevated posture than to horizontal. (Note that the posture shown here would not have been the habitual posture in life: see discussion.)

Taylor (2014:figure 3). Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018. Images of vertebra from Gilmore (1936:plate XXIV). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 1. If the slightly sub-horizontal osteological neutral pose of Stevens and Parrish (1999) is correct, then the cartilaginous neutral pose would be correspondingly slightly lower than depicted here, but still much closer to the elevated posture than to horizontal. (Note that the posture shown here would not have been the habitual posture in life: see discussion.)

A year back, as I was composing a blog-post about our neck-cartilage paper in PLOS ONE (Taylor and Wedel 2013c), I found myself writing down the rather trivial formula for the additional angle of extension at an intervertebral joint once the cartilage is taken into account. In that post, I finished with the promise “I guess that will have to go in a followup now”. Amazingly it’s taken me a year to get that one-pager written and submitted. (Although in the usual way of things, the manuscript ended up being 13 pages long.)

To summarise the main point of the paper: when you insert cartilage of thickness t between two vertebrae whose zygapophyses articulate at height h above the centra, the more anterior vertebra is forced upwards by t/h radians. Our best guess for how much cartilage is between the adjacent vertebrae in an Apatosaurus neck is about 10% of centrum length: the image above shows the effect of inserting that much cartilage at each joint.

And yes, it’s weird. But it’s where the data leads me, so I think it would be dishonest not to publish it.

I’ll be interested to see what the reviewers make of this. You are all of course welcome to leave comments on the preprint itself; but because this is going through conventional peer-review straight away (unlike our Barosaurus preprint), there’s no need to offer the kind of detailed and comprehensive comment that several people did with the previous one. Of course feel free if you wish, but I’m not depending on it.

References

Gilmore Charles W. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300 and plates XXI–XXXIV.

Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284(5415):798–800. doi:10.1126/science.284.5415.798

Taylor, Michael P. 2014. Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PeerJ PrePrints 2:e588v1 doi:10.7287/peerj.preprints.588v1

Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2013c. The effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture and range of motion in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78214. 17 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078214