Traditional publishing in peer-reviewed journals can be slow, costly, and may disincentivise risky science. Negative data and interesting observations that do not fit a paper's narrative are rarely shared. There is huge scope for experimentation across many aspects of publishing and data sharing, and innovation in this space could hugely benefit the quality and accessibility of research.
Could we improve how we share research and data?
Scientific publishing is the lifeblood of the research process. It enjoys a virtual monopoly over the sharing of knowledge between researchers, and forms the basis of articles intended for society at large. Currently, scientific publishing is centred around academic journals: periodical publications that collate peer-reviewed articles in various fields of study. This model doesn’t meet many of the challenges faced by researchers today. The slow pace of publication, alarmingly limited reproducibility, and misaligned incentives created by the publishing system all create major inefficiencies. Rethinking how we share scientific findings, negative data, and experimental protocols could increase the impact of research and boost the technological economy as a whole.
One major issue with the academic publishing system is the incentives created by “publish or perish” culture, and the consequences this has on the reproducibility of research. Individual researchers are incentivised to produce research as a form of career currency; journals prefer publishing exciting positive results in busy fields that will draw in views and citations. This gravitation towards popular, citation-boosting fields disincentivises high-risk research and causes major areas of science to be neglected. As such, the literature can become biased towards cargo cult science that appears to validate a popular hypothesis. These effects have led to the suggestion that many published research findings could be false—all without any fraud or deception by experimenters necessary. Empirical results support this expectation: reproduction studies across cancer biology, psychology, the social sciences, economics, and drug discovery find that around ~35-70% of studies produce significant effects in replication studies (often with lower effect sizes).
This creates practical problems for industry, researchers, and the general public. For example, pharmaceutical companies are often frustrated by the low validation rates of drug targets from academic research, and must spend significant time and money on in-house validation. In academia, over 70% of surveyed researchers report not being able to reproduce a published result – this represents significant wasted effort, especially as reproduction attempts tend not to be subsequently published. The inability to publish negative data represents another source of waste. Much of researchers’ work necessarily explores dead ends, and the lack of venues for publishing this work means that other researchers cannot learn from this experience.
There are a number of other ways in which publishing reform could help scientific progress. The peer-review system has ample room for improvement: it’s expensive, drains researchers’ morale, and may not even work to improve papers. The length of the process also slows down science. It can take months or years to complete the publication process, slowing down dissemination of results and scientists’ career progress. Journals also impose significant stylistic constraints—the diversity of scientific writing seems to have shrunk considerably, and this might have consequences for the types of research that can gain an audience.
There is room to radically improve the system. By introducing new publishing formats, we can fix misaligned incentives while creating useful resources for the scientific community. We could create spaces to publish important negative data, interesting observations that aren’t attached to finished narratives or don’t merit a full paper, databases of validated results, or shorter technical papers. Creating venues for more theoretical science would also be valuable—the Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse has eloquently argued for the importance of ideas and theories in biology, and the right publication format would incentivise these. There are positive developments in this field—registered reports, pre-print servers, and unconventional science journals could all help to enrich the publishing ecosystem. At the Better Science Project, we aim to support such experiments and develop a greater understanding of how to build the publishing formats of the future.