Trust in scientific publishing

[Please excuse formatting – reinstalling ICE soon]

Two stories have coincided – both relate to the role of trust in scientific publishing.

The first is when I was rung by Emma Marris, reporting for Nature, last week and asked what I thought of the financial problems in the American Chemical Society. I said that I wasn’t really the right person to ask as I had no previous or specialist area, but that it was essential that Scientific Societies were a key part of the scientific community. She’s included a quote in this week’s Nature:

American Chemical Society makes cutbacks to fight financial losses.

Emma Marris

The American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s biggest scientific society, is feeling the effects of the global economic downturn.

On 28 April, six months after tightening its belt a first notch, the society laid off 56 people, 3% of its employees…. [the rest is Pay-to-read]

I can’t reproduce the article (copyright) but here’s my bit …

Even vocal critics of the society’s opposition to open-access publishing aren’t delighting in its financial woes. Peter Murray Rust of the University of Cambridge, UK, whose blog covers open-access chemical information, says that he wishes the society well. “I have not been a supporter of many of [its] policies,” he says, “but I would say that we absolutely need national scientific societies.”

As Emma says I have been critical of some aspects of the ACS’s public policy, most notably its proactive role in PRISM – a coalition of (a few) leading publishers to discredit Open Access. From Peter Suber’s blog (2007):

[3]   July 2006 – As Nature later reports, Several publishing executives with ACS, Wiley and Elsevier meet with PR operative, Eric Dezenhall, to discuss a plan to defeat open access.  Dezenhall advises the executives to equate Open Access with a reduction in peer review quality.

This and similar actions have led people to question the scientific integrity of the participants .

In the C21 one of the critical commodities is trust. A typical (and misguided) mantra is: “You can’t trust anything in Wikipedia”. So who can ,by their nature be trusted in the scientific arenas? I’ll try the following list and am happy for comments:

  • learned societies (and international scientific unions)

  • universities, national laboratories and government agencies

  • libraries

  • funding bodies including (most) charities

  • (some) regulatory bodies if business is conducted publicly

Scientific societies have a critical role and that’s why I wish to see a healthy and growing involvement of scientific societies in establishing trust. Trust cannot be mandated, it has to be earned. It is hardly won and easily lost. In C21 Openness and democratisation are major tools in speeding up the growth of trust.

I’ve excluded the commercial publishers. There are worthy ones but there are also ones driven at least partly by the search for revenue at the cost of trust. The following story ( broke recently about Elsevier’s publication – for money paid by Merck – of a fake journal. The “journal” was made to look like a typical medical peer-reviewed journal

Merck paid an undisclosed sum to Elsevier to produce several volumes of a publication that had the look of a peer-reviewed medical journal, but contained only reprinted or summarized articles–most of which presented data favorable to Merck products–that appeared to act solely as marketing tools with no disclosure of company sponsorship. …

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, which was published by Exerpta Medica, a division of scientific publishing juggernaut Elsevier, is not indexed in the MEDLINE database, and has no website (not even a defunct one). …

This might well have gone unnoticed in a pre-digital age and it’s clear that the blogosphere is a major tool in detecting unacceptable publication. So – as many have noted – here is a commercial company which has campaigned to rubbish Open Access as “junk science” behaving in a manner which totally destroys any trust in their ethics and practice. I have no option but to say that I now cannot absolutely trust the ethical integrity of every piece of information in Elsevier journals.

The need for Open, trusted, scientific data and discourse is now clear. The scientific societies are well placed to help us make the change from closed paper to open trusted semantic digital. They clearly need a business model that transforms the new qualities into a revenue stream. This will not be easy but it has to be tried – there is no alternative. Some of the modern tools will help – the ability to mashup, aggregate, etc. will lead to new forms of high-quality information that will have monetary value. Certified validated information will lead to productivity gains and may be a valuable commodity.

So this should be a time for scientific societies to look positively to the future rather than fearfully at the receding past.

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4 Responses to Trust in scientific publishing

  1. david says:

    This group it’s focused to a science journalists, editors and science communicators to develop new contacts and to share experiences.
    You can access via the link
    I hope you find useful.
    Yours sincerely
    -David Sánchez

  2. Chris Rusbridge says:

    On the “trustability” of universities as a class, check out the University of Integrated Science, California and particularly its curriculum (;-)
    More seriously, 5 think trust is fluid, easily modified and not as easily totally lost as I used to think (unlike credibility). So I’ve probably not lost trust in Elsevier to do a large part of its job really well. But I’ve probably adjusted part of my trust model to trust it, on any occasion, to nakedly exploit its assets for gain. But in a sense, as a commercial publisher, that’s what it’s for.
    ACS is maybe a bit different. My guess is that there’s a failure of imagination here, rather than naked profit. I assume they are saying to themselves “this Open Access model could destroy our business model (and look, we’re in financial trouble already), and we cross-subsidise from our publishing to our science support. Ergo, Open Access is bad and must be destroyed in order that Chemistry can survive”. I’m not sure how this relates to their trustability. Does “I trust ACS to act like a particularly rapacious commercial publisher” translate into “I no longer trust ACS to act in the interests of chemistry as a discipline”?

  3. Pingback: Elsevier Oopsie

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