Could the reddit model replace the current scientific publication system?

Published on March 24, 2013 by Dr. Randal S. Olson

open access open science reddit scientific publishing

6 min READ

Just today, Subhajit Ganguly put up a blog post that piqued my interest: "Imminent Changes In The Publication Process In Sciences." In this blog post, Subhajit repeats the battle cry we so often hear from the Open Science movement: traditional for-profit journals have outgrown their usefulness, they benefit only a few individuals, and it's time to abandon traditional journals and move to a completely Open Science model, such as posting all of your scientific output on arXiv or figshare for everyone to see and critique.

The benefits of the Open Science model

There are clear benefits to openly posting all of your scientific output instead of relying on for-profit journals:

1) We open the possibility of receiving feedback and criticism from everyone in the scientific community, and not just a select few who were chosen to review the article. Presumably this will lead to a more fair treatment of everyone's scientific output, since the rating of a manuscript will be based on the opinion of hundreds (or even thousands) of people with a broad range of viewpoints and backgrounds.

2) We cut out the middleman (the for-profit publisher). We won't have to pay someone to disseminate our manuscripts any more. Most scientists find and retrieve other scientist's manuscripts online nowadays. Why are we paying someone thousands of dollars to host our manuscript(s) on a web server when we can host them on figshare/arXiv for free? Then we can freely promote our article through standard means: conferences, press releases, blog posts, Twitter, etc.

3) We increase the visibility of our scientific output. There has been a big uproar in the Open Science community claiming that "hiding your scientific output behind a paywall is immoral." Posting your manuscripts on figshare/arXiv immediately alleviates this concern. Additionally, anyone can access your manuscript(s) at any point in time since they're just a click away on figshare/arXiv, which directly translates into increased potential visibility of your scientific output.

I'm sure there are many more benefits, but those are the major ones that stick out to me.

Let's be real

My biggest criticism of moving to the model that Subhajit et al. argue for is about benefit #1. It assumes that we have hundreds (or even thousands) of scientists chomping at the bit to thoughtfully critique everyone's scientific output. Realistically, journals already have enough trouble finding just three scientists to thoughtfully review each manuscript, and that's with the added benefit that the reviewers can claim they performed a service to the journal and scientific community on their CV. If we take that benefit away, will we really average three or more reviewers per manuscript?

Beyond the above, is it really practical to rely on the standard means of dissemination to get your article noticed? Publishing a manuscript in high-profile journals is a reliable way to ensure that your manuscript is seen by a good portion of the scientific community. If we take away the journals, what do we have left to make your manuscript stand out among the rest?

We have some popular blogs, such as Haldane's Sieve, that highlight quality manuscripts and give them the attention they deserve. But what if the people running those blogs don't think your manuscript is good enough to highlight in their blog? What about the thousands of manuscripts that would fall into that category? We run into the exact same problem as we have with for-profit journals: when only a few people are in charge of deciding which manuscripts are "highlight-worthy," not all manuscripts are going to be given a fair rating.

Could the reddit model replace the current scientific publication system?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with reddit, reddit is one of the most-visited social news web sites in the world. reddit has been tremendously influential on the web as the self-proclaimed "front page of the Internet."

The reddit model works as follows. Users who sign up on reddit are given four abilities:

  1. submit links
  2. comment on links and other comments
  3. upvote links and comments they think are constructive, and
  4. downvote links and comments they think are unconstructive.

Links and comments that receive a higher score (score = upvotes minus downvotes) are ranked higher in the queue when people view the list of links on reddit. Typically high-scoring links are only ranked high for 24 hours after they are posted, after which time they rapidly decline in the queue.

[caption id="attachment_897" align="aligncenter" width="1110"]Top 5 posts on /r/science on March 23, 2013 Top 5 posts on /r/science on March 23, 2013[/caption]

Shown above, reddit already has an active scientific community in /r/science. There, users submit links to scientific articles, upvote or downvote them depending on their quality and relevance, and discuss their methods and implications in the comments. Seeing this community got me thinking: could the entire scientific community share research with each other this way?

With this model, there's no more need for formal peer review. Instead, peer review is done by upvoting or downvoting the link and discussing the manuscript in the comments. The constructive comments would be upvoted to the top, while the unconstructive comments fall to the bottom. The entire process is transparent to anyone visiting the web site, and the discussion is archived if anyone ever wants to find that comment that Dr. So-and-so made about a manuscript four years ago.

[caption id="attachment_907" align="aligncenter" width="876"]A few subreddits that you can subscribe to on reddit A few subreddits that you can subscribe to on reddit[/caption]

There would be separate "subreddits," or sub-forums for each field of research that you could optionally subscribe to. If you're only interested in sequence alignment algorithms, there could be a subreddit dedicated specifically to manuscripts detailing the latest sequence alignment algorithms. Similarly, if you have broader interests such as Evolutionary Biology in general, there could be a subreddit dedicated to discussing the major breakthrough manuscripts in Evolutionary Biology. The research community would be able to create and abandon these subreddits as they wish, allowing the system to reflect the interests of the research community as a whole.

The citation system would work as usual, except the journal would be replaced by the preprint manuscript hosting service you use. Instead of reporting on your CV that you published two papers in such-and-such high-profile journal, you would report the Sciddit ("Scientific reddit") score your manuscript received.

The reddit model seems like a much more scalable model for the widespread dissemination, peer review, and discussion of scientific output online. The only thing left is to give it a try. Will someone step up to the challenge?

Update (03/25/2013): It looks like someone already created a reddit interface for arXiv. It's a little buggy, but this is a great first step toward making this idea a reality!