We are living in the age of information. Just 15-20 years ago, finding the answer to a question involved a trip to the library or dusting off your heavy and possibly outdated encyclopedia sets.
Now, you can find the answer to any question you can think of with a quick Google search. This has changed the ease with we expect to be able to find information, and some have begun to argue more outdated styles of publication, specifically medical journals, are archaic at best and could even be impeding medical and scientific progress.
Historically, to get anything published in a prestigious journal like the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), applicants had to go through a lengthy application and peer review process before their work ever saw the light of day. The NEJM is easily one of the best-known and most-respected medical journals in the world, but that delay in publication, in today’s lightning-fast internet-based world, can mean someone else is able to reach the same conclusion and publish it online, effectively preempting the peer-review process.
The Journal itself has basically said that it doesn’t need to change with the times, because it and other similar publications have no real competition. Some researchers are even afraid of speaking up against these traditional publishing houses, for fear that they will be blacklisted and never able to publish.
Essentially, the New England Journal of Medicine feels that it, and it alone, is worthy of determining what information is released to the public and to the medical community, as well as what conflicting opinion are heard. This idea, in an age of free information, is spurring a growing movement for change.
Free the Information
A number of scientists have taken steps to help free this information that had previously been jealously guarded by paywalls and publications like the Journal. Alexandra Elbakyan was one of those researchers who was locked out of a lot of the information that she needed, so in 2011 she created Sci-Hub.
This website now hosts over 48 million scientific papers, many taken directly from their university or institution sites, with paywall access keys donated by researchers who work or study at various universities around the globe.
Right now, nearly ever paper ever published is available for anyone, for free, thanks to a researcher, Elbakyan, who has been dubbed the Robin Hood of Science. This isn’t a new practice, though Sci-Hub has streamlined it significantly. For years, researchers have reached out to each other first by email and then using social media platforms such as Twitter to get copies of papers that would otherwise be out of reach.
Technology allows us to outsource and produce information faster than ever before. The speed at which we can communicate has greatly impacted the scientific community and many members have begun to argue that by not sharing results as quickly and as widely as possible, they are neglecting their duty to the public. As a result, many are turning to lesser-known journals and releasing their findings in preprints, which allow researchers to make their early findings public quickly, without allowing their papers to languish in peer review for months or years at a time.
Like information sharing, preprints are not a new occurrence in the scientific community. Physicists have been using this method to share their work with the community and the public since the early 1990s, but more and more disciplines are starting to follow suit and take the leap in favor of getting their information out there as quickly as possible.
Why the Change?
While you can call the New England Journal of Medicine archaic or hidebound for clinging to the old publication techniques, you have to wonder if these changes would even be an issue if it weren’t for the Internet and the sheer speed with which we can share these amazing discoveries.
The NEJM still has its place, even in today’s fast-paced, free information society, but when even the most prestigious colleges can’t afford the subscription costs to make those papers available, it may be time to consider making a change.
Sites like Medium, a free publishing platform from one of Twitter’s co-founders, are gaining momentum as places for scientists to publish their findings as well. Even right now, as this is being written, researchers all over the globe are using platforms like Twitter to collaborate and work on time-sensitive problems like the Zika Virus, using hashtags like #ASAPbio.
These changes are coming about because of the Internet, but the fact that they’re happening as quickly as they are says volumes about how desperately this change is needed. Information needs to be shared, and we have the best tool in human history, to date, to do that. Instead of clinging to the past, and holding tight to the idea that these research papers are something to be kept out of reach, we need to step into the future.
Photo credit: David Goehring / Steve Buissinne