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Imagine a World Without Journals

Michael Eisen, the EiC of eLife, challenged Twitter to do just that in a long thread over the weekend. His alternative: publish research papers in preprint on free-access servers such as arXiv or bioRxiv, and (as Eisen puts it) “then review and curate these works in many different ways, throughout the useful lifetime of the paper.”

Under Eisen, eLife is taking steps to institute this paradigm itself (yes, the irony of a journal working to put itself out of business), Here’s the beginning of Eisen’s thread (I encourage you to read the whole thing, which has gotten lots of feedback, mostly very positive):

This follows an interesting paper out in June in PLoS Biology by Eisen and two other authors, recommending grantees mandate that preprints of all research they fund be posted to free-access servers such as arXiv and bioRxiv. (The authors call this Plan U, for “universal.”)

The world imagined by the journal is one of extremely flexible peer review:

The availability and permanent online archiving of manuscripts before their evaluation would also provide an opportunity for innovation in how peer review is organized and performed and how it might be tailored to the needs of particular disciplines and audiences. Crucially, because the costs of ingestion, online display and permanent archiving of manuscripts would already be covered by a preprint server, there is a reduced barrier to entry for new peer review initiatives that emphasize curation, commentary, and evaluation rather than manuscript hosting.

Plan U therefore creates fertile ground for a dynamic new ecosystem, opening opportunities for experimentation with peer review rather than prescribing a particular process, endpoint, or business model. Such flexibility may be of particular benefit to scientific societies, nonprofit organizations, journals, and self-organizing groups of academics who wish to improve on existing approaches to peer review and/or explore alternative ways to evaluate academic output.

Go ahead and laugh. Then think back 10 years, to 2009. Would you have believed then that every scientific publication publicly funded in Europe today would be required to be open access?

But if journals went away, how would research communicators function without the essential building blocks of the prestige journal, the launch and the headline? What would be their central task?

It wouldn’t be to promote single studies.

It might be to group new unpublished research relevant to decision making more intelligently — teaming up with peer reviewers and using machine learning to scour these servers for the most transgressive or relevant new research to the public, and then grouping those papers into new “journals.”

It might also be to move away from studies altogether to promote the expertise of their organizations and individual researchers, in content that translates that expertise for non-specialists.

The prospect is chaotic, frightening, liberating and exciting. Just contemplating it makes one realize how creaky is the system communicating research depends on — like continuing to sail open oceans in wooden boats.