How things have always been

Traditional scientific journals ask peer-reviewers to do two things: assess whether a manuscript is scientifically sound, and judge whether it’s sufficiently important to appear in the particular journal it’s been submitted to.

So I could have sent my 2009 paper on Brachiosaurus to Nature, and the reviewers would (presumably) have said “this is good science, but not exciting or sexy enough for Nature“. My article would have been filtered out of Nature, which after all is very limited for space. Instead, I sent it to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, where the exciting-and-sexy bar is calibrated differently, and it passed both halves of the peer-review test.

Enter PLoS

The great insight of PLoS ONE was to recognise the two-pronged nature of peer-review, and to tease them apart by discarding the second prong completely. Its guidelines for reviewers are clear:

Unlike many journals which attempt to use the peer review process to determine whether or not an article reaches the level of ‘importance’ required by a given journal, PLoS ONE uses peer review to determine whether a paper is technically sound and worthy of inclusion in the published scientific record. Once the work is published in PLoS ONE, the broader community is then able to discuss and evaluate the significance of the article (through the number of citations it attracts; the downloads it achieves; the media and blog coverage it receives; and the post-publication Notes, Comments and Ratings that it receives on PLoS ONE etc).

I like to think of this as “kill ’em all and let God sort it out”, but a less colourful description that has caught on is “publish then filter“. This name contrasts nicely with the traditional model, which can be called “filter then publish“.

The models compared

On the whole, traditionalists prefer the older model, because when filtering is done in advance by professionals it saves them from having to do their own filtering.

Or does it?

No.

There was a time when it probably did: when to keep up with a field, it would be sufficient to read (or at least scan) the articles in a handful of the discipline’s top journals. But those days are long gone. I took a random selection of ten PDFs from my own library, and checked what journals they were in. In that sample, only a single journal came up more than once: there were two papers from Acta Paleontologica Polonica. The others were from Acta Geologica Sinica, the Anatomical Record, Animal Behaviour, Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Herpetological Conservation and Biology, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, plus a dissertation from the University of Flensburg. (And I am one of the most narrowly focussed researchers you could meet.)

In the face of such a flood of information, no-one can read everything that’s made it through the filters into all their favourite journals. So in practice what actually happens is that each of us filters again — finding relevant publications in a huge range of journals by the social web we’re in: mailing lists, blogs, Twitter, and so on. I believe some people even use FaceBook.

A tentative conclusion

So the real choice is between publish-then-filter or filter-then-publish-then-filter.

Put that way, I’m not sure I see very much value in that first filtering phase. I know it’s going to let through a ton of stuff that I don’t care about — all the palaeobotany papers in Palaeontologia Electronica, for example. But that pre-filter is also bound to stop a lot of stuff that I would care about if it were published. If JVP rejects someone’s unexciting paper on a partial Brachiosaurus specimen because it’s not sufficiently exciting, that may be good for the journal’s “prestige” (whatever that means) but it certainly doesn’t serve me as a researcher: I want all known specimens to be published.

So I am coming round to thinking that the PLoS way is best: if a paper is good science, then why even bother thinking about its likely impact? It’s not like that’s something we can expect to guess accurately, anyway. Just publish it and let the ashes fall where they may.  The world will figure out for itself whether it’s worth reading and citing.

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