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Digitizing the Coin of the Realm

Electronic publication has transformed the culture of scientific communication

Francis L. Macrina

This is Now: From Print to Pixels

Let’s take a look at where things stand today by considering how computers, computing, and the Internet have affected the publication process itself. The availability of detailed, quality information about how to publish our scholarly work has grown dramatically, creating a valuable resource that is just a few mouse clicks away. The spartan instructions for authors (IFAs) of the early 1990s have given way to complex web pages and downloadable electronic files. Along the way, IFAs themselves have changed from brief documents that conveyed preparative and administrative instructions to lengthy, detailed compendia of authorship definitions, responsibilities, expectations and policies. In 1991, the IFA for the journal Nature amounted to a single printed page of 1,300 words. Today, Nature publishes its IFA electronically as the “Guide to Publication Policies of the Nature Journals.” It is an 18-page, 12,000-word PDF.

Such evolution is more likely to be the rule than the exception. I recently reviewed the publication guidelines of five scientific journals for a study that appeared this year in Science and Engineering Ethics. Most of these journals had expanded their IFAs into detailed documents. I also looked at guidelines provided by a few professional societies and noted that they, too, contained considerable detail about authorship and publication practices, much of which agreed with the journals’ IFAs. In another essay in this series (July–August), Michael Zigmond made a compelling case for the role that professional societies can and do play in developing and promoting codes of conduct. Zigmond chaired the Society for Neuroscience committee that wrote guidelines for responsible scientific communication. This document is so comprehensive that it leaves almost nothing to the imagination.

IFAs and society guidelines have expanded for a variety of reasons. They have become more detailed and precise in response to lessons learned from high-profile misconduct cases. And they have grown longer to encompass new policies on topics such as digital image manipulation. Taken together, modern journal IFAs and professional-society guidelines form the basis for ethical standards and best practices in scientific publication. Today, this trove of information is instantly accessible using whatever electronic portal—PC, laptop, tablet or smart phone—suits you. The digital availability of information should be a catalyst for promoting responsible conduct, but its mere existence won’t guarantee the production of ethical researchers. We’ve got to practice what we preach, and teach what we practice. The legendary football quarterback Johnny Unitas summed it up before every game, after the coaches finished their pep talks. Unitas’s speech was always the same: “Talk is cheap. Let’s play!”

Computers have not only increased the availability of ethical guidance, they have also impacted the work flow of manuscript preparation, submission, peer review, revision and publication. At one end of the spectrum, your favorite journal may have gone digital by mandating that some or all manuscript-related activities be conducted by e-mail. At the other extreme, the publisher may require the use of a web-based, graphic interface to handle all phases of submission and review, with e-mail communication augmenting the process. But across this spectrum of modern digital work flows, the common denominator is a greatly reduced role for the nonelectronic exchange of materials.

Clearly, digitization makes the manuscript production-to-publication cycle more convenient for all parties, especially authors. You’ll have to accept this as my assertion based on experience and intuition, because data to support the claim are scarce. But if you published papers 20 years ago, and still do so today, you’ll know what I mean. I believe that most scientists do not miss drawing figures (even with early computer programs), photocopying manuscripts and mailing printed papers.

But the notion of convenience should not be confused with speed. To be sure, the time between acceptance and publication has gotten shorter: just a few weeks for online articles, compared to months for print articles. But there’s also the issue of the time from submission to acceptance. If you look at papers published online, you’ll likely find that the time between submission and acceptance can be a few months, sometimes longer. The obvious interpretation is that peer review can take varied, unpredictable and sometimes excessive amounts of time. This may reflect a process that is desirably rigorous. But excessive submission-to-acceptance time can also be a sign of the human foibles of over-commitment or procrastination. Evidently, even the most attractive graphic interface can’t overcome these age-old problems among authors, editors and reviewers.

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