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Biology Direct

vary_corals_186.jpgThe growing acceptance of the "open access" scientific publishing model has made possible further experiments in the world of academic literatures. Open access publication makes scientific work available at no cost, in order to further the spread of knowledge and ideas among communities -- such as scientists in the developing world -- often locked out of cutting-edge science due to limited resources. The non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals are perhaps the best-known open access effort, but now BioMed Central -- which had sought to combine open access with commercial publication -- has embarked on an arguably even more radical experiment. Biology Direct, a newly-launched series of biology journals, combines the open access model with a new, and very open, system of peer review (PDF): the reviews are published alongside the articles, with no anonymity -- and no rejection, even if the reviews are uniformly negative. (The author may choose to pull his or her article in such a case, of course.)

Everything in Biology Direct will be completely in the open: the author will invite the referees without any mediation by the Editors or Publisher, and the reviews will be signed and published together with the article. The idea is that any manuscript, even a seriously flawed one, that is interesting enough for three respected scientists to invest their time in reading and reviewing will do more good than harm if published -- along with candid reviews written by those scientists. Under the Biology Direct rules, an author is free to solicit as many members of the Editorial Board as s/he has patience for. The philosophy behind this approach is that what really matters is not how many scientists are uninterested in a paper (or even assess it negatively, which could be the underlying reason for declining to review) but that there are some qualified members of the scientific community who do find it worthy of attention.

The editors admit that it's likely that mediocre or poorly-done articles will slip through -- but note that the same is true for traditional journals, too. The advantage, however, is that peer review methods like that of Biology Direct is more likely to showcase "truly innovative, bold (sometimes, partly, speculative) research." For me, that's the most attractive aspect of the model. The material in Biology Direct has the potential to be far more provocative than work in traditional journals, but will simultaneously give the reader greater context as to why a given piece should be considered a radical, controversial or altogether speculative approach to a problem. The journal's breadth should encourage some interesting ideas: Biology Direct will include publications in the fields of Systems Biology, Computational Biology, and Evolutionary Biology, with an Immunology section to come.

Biology Direct is clearly taking a big risk. Peer review gives scientific literature its traditional legitimacy. If an article is published in Nature, Science, or PLoS Computational Biology, the reader accepts that the article has been checked out by people qualified in relevant fields, and that the results described in the paper are rigorous, even if unprecedented. In practice, peer review hasn't always worked out as desired; scientists are just as flawed as anyone else, and can suffer from lapses in judgment, unstated biases and even poor ethics. That peer review has traditionally been cloaked in relative anonymity has perpetuated some of these problems, as the reviewers don't have to face the same kind of scrutiny as the material they've reviewed. Biology Direct is an attempt to change all that. But in doing so, they may well change the face of biological science.

Comments (2)

I wonder about the "no rejection" idea -- there are plenty of pig-headed egotists in science who will grab a publication regardless of the reviews, and there is potential for endless back-and-forth between reviewers and authors (think Usenet with jargon).

I'm very glad to see the experiment being run, though. The "open science" idea covers a lot of ground -- open access publishing, open source software, platforms for collaboration, and on and on. I've long held that the knowledge base makes its own imperatives -- that we now know so much, that when there's a bottleneck impeding progress it quickly becomes a hotspot of research activity until it is resolved. I am beginning to think that open science is a similar answer to a more complex bottleneck. Building a research community on the basis of competition for resources (tenure, grants, etc) has started to become as much of a liability as a way to gain the benefits of competition. Outright fraud is an edge case, but there are plenty of less blatant breaches of community and of ethics that have become all too common: dragging out a review of a competitor's paper, refusing to share reagents, withholding information, and so on. Rather than targeting specific technical or biological questions, I think the community has begun to focus on its own structure and methodology as a potential bottleneck.

It's a good time to be a scientist. :-)

Ros Dignon:

Just to iron out the point made by Bill Hooker.

Although it appears that there is no rejection except for articles of a pseudoscientific nature, in effect a manuscript is rejected if 3 board members cannot be persuaded to review or recommend a colleague to review the work. I refer you to http://www.biology-direct.com/info/about/ where there are further details.


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