Taking a Closer Look at the Role of Scientific Publishers

The following is an adapted excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

What exactly is a scientific publisher in 2017? Are we information aggregators? Content-related product providers? Content quality checkers? Twenty years ago, the definition was much simpler: Scientific publishers vetted submitted manuscripts, formatted them for publication, and then handled the distribution of journals. Today, publishers have to rethink their roles to remain relevant. Publishing is still about processing and delivering information, but now the emphasis is on different parts of the process.

“There is a lot of discussion on the validity of claims made in scientific papers. Many are retracted based on fraudulent practice or manipulated data,” notes Prashant Kamat, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Energy Letters. Peer review remains a critical function, especially with the rise of open access publishing. It is the publisher’s job to not only communicate research to the scientific community, but also to make sure that research is of the highest quality and free from manipulation and plagiarism.

The number of retractions for papers indexed by Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science increased from about 30 per year in the early 2000s to about 400 in 2011, an increase of about 1200% compared with a 44% increase in papers published. Retractions total about 0.2% of all papers published in scholarly journals each year but high-profile retractions can undermine the credibility of a journal, a field or even the public perception of science writ large. To keep up with submission increases, improvements to the peer review process are needed.

“With the incredible demands on our time and never-ending stream of review invitations, together with ever diminishing time until the review is due back to editors, it is now impractical to spend a long time reviewing papers,” The new skill is to write a helpful report in around 15 minutes. This trend suggests the question—do we need to rethink how to best implement peer review?” says Greg Scholes, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

A lack of reviewer education may be a part of the problem. A recent survey found that formal peer review education is scarce: 4% of respondents participated in a journal’s reviewer mentoring program, 4% attended a workshop/seminar, 4% watched a video, and 2% watched a webinar. The survey found 77% of reviewers want further peer review training.

Another area where publishers can play a unique role is in managing trends in research. Many researchers are becoming concerned about the pressure to pursue a trend. Publishers have to be the counterweight to scientific hype. At the same time, it falls to them to look out for new and exciting fields and to recognize great work no matter where it comes from. “A challenge for publishers is how work out how to select and communicate the best innovative new science across a diversity of topics, and taking some risk foreseeing papers that might be influential or seed new directions, rather than following trends,” says Scholes.

Modern publishers provide resources for scientists on a variety of topics. They provide access to webinars, online tools, white papers, videos and more. They can also host conferences that provide researchers with a chance to get together and share ideas. Publishers can also act as intermediaries between the scientific community and the rest of the world, helping to improve the discoverability to important papers, as well as serving as a resource to help journalists deliver more accurate reports. “The news media likes to promote sensational news. People who hype their research claim to solve societal problems with lab scale experiments. For example, a catalyst that works for few minutes cannot solve world’s energy problems,” says Prashant Kamat, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Energy Letters. Publishers also have the power to help the general public and journalists alike to understand when a paper is being taken out of context.

Even though the technical barriers to sharing research have fallen in recent years, publishers are still a key part of how research is vetted, shared, and explained. The challenge that lies ahead is to find new ways to contribute to that process while adapting to the global forces remaking the research landscape.

Read more articles in the Top 10 Trends Driving Science series and download the full report.


If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.