Monday, April 14, 2014

Strangling Science: Antiquated System Wastes Billions, Costs Lives

The scientific community in California and the nation is fraught with worry about declining financial support for academic research. At the same time, however, as scientists wring their hands about the lack of funding, they are going along with the waste of more than $10 billion that could be used to help relieve the cash shortage.

What this is all about is the “stranglehold” that scientific journals have on publishing the results of the research paid for almost entirely by taxpayers. That research is the foundation of the journal industry, which is both highly profitable and a powerful lobby in Washington as it seeks to maintain its franchise. The industry is also based on a 400-hundred-year-old system that not only wastes money but costs lives because of its tediously slow mechanisms.

“Tragically insane” and unnecessary is how respected UC Berkeley researcher Michael Eisen describes the whole business, which is nearly invisible to the general public. That is, until one of its members starts to seek publicly financed information that is buried behind expensive paywalls.
Michael Eisen
UCB Alumni Association photo

Scientists are the unpaid workers for journals, submitting their articles for what they hope will be professional prestige and advancement. They do so, Eisen said, “while they acknowledge that their business practices are bad for science and the world.”

Last year, Eisen spoke to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco about the subject. His speech was carried in a somewhat truncated form in this past winter's issue of the UC Berkeley alumni magazine. One of the headlines on the article asked,
“In the age of the Internet, why is so much research inaccessible?”

What Eisen had to say is worthy of careful thought as the $3 billion California stem cell agency faces financial extinction and the NIH sees its budget under increasing pressure. It seems a dubious proposition for scientists to give away the fruits of their labor and then have to pay for critically necessary access. Here is how Eisen described the situation along with additional excerpts from his speech.
“Every year universities, governments and other organizations spend in excess of $10 billion dollars to buy back access to papers their researchers gave to journals for free, while most teachers, students, health care providers and members of the public are left out in the cold. 
“Even worse, the stranglehold existing journals have on academic publishing has stifled efforts to improve the ways scholars communicate with each other and the public. In an era when anyone can share anything with the entire world at the click of a button, the fact that it takes a typical paper nine months to be published should be a scandal. These delays matter – they slow down progress and in many cases literally cost lives.”

Eisen continued,
“Tonight, I will describe how we got to this ridiculous place. How twenty years of avarice from publishers, conservatism from researchers, fecklessness from universities and funders, and a basic lack of common sense from everyone has made the research community and public miss the manifest opportunities created by the Internet to transform how scholars communicate their ideas and discoveries.”

Eisen decscribed the role of the scientific publications.
“I want you to note just how little the journal actually does here. 
“They didn’t come up with the idea. They didn’t provide the grant. They didn’t do the research. They didn’t write the paper. They didn’t review it. All they did was provide the infrastructure for peer review, oversee the process, and prepare the paper for publication. This is a tangible, albeit minor, contribution, that pales in comparison to the labors of the scientists involved and the support from the funders and sponsors of the research. 
“And yet, for this modest at best role in producing the finished work, publishers are rewarded with ownership of – in the form of copyright – and complete control over the finished, published work, which they turn around and lease back to the same institutions and agencies that sponsored the research in the first place. Thus not only has the scientific community provided all the meaningful intellectual effort and labor to the endeavor, they’re also fully funding the process. 
“Universities are, in essence, giving an incredibly valuable product  – the end result of an investment of more than a hundred billion dollars of public funds every year – to publishers for free, and then they are paying them an additional ten billion dollars a year to lock these papers away where almost nobody can access them.
“It would be funny if it weren’t so tragically insane.”

How does it affect the public, particularly persons with serious diseases? Eisen answered,
“This is most obviously a problem for people facing important medical decisions who have no access to the most up-to-date research on their conditions – research their tax dollars paid for. In a world where patients are increasingly involved in health care decisions, and where all sorts of sketchy medical information is available online, it is criminal that they do not have access to high quality research on whatever ails them and potential ways to treat it. 
“Astonishingly, many physicians and health care providers also lack access to basic medical research. Journal subscriptions in medicine are very expensive, and most doctors have access to only a handful of journals in their specialty. 
“But this lack of access is not just important in the doctor’s office. Scores of talented scientists across the world are blind to the latest advances that could affect their research. And in this country students and teachers at high schools and small colleges are denied access to the latest work in the fields they are studying – driving them to learn from textbooks or Wikipedia rather than the primary research literature. Technology startups often can not afford to access to the basic research they are trying to translate into useful products.”

Supporters of the journal industry argue that it is necessary because it provides for peer review of research results, thus ensuring the integrity of the science. Eisen said, however, that current peer review “poisons science.”
“Peer review is the closest thing science has to a religious doctrine. Scientists believe that peer review is essential to maintaining the integrity of the scientific literature, that it is the only way to filter through millions of papers to identify those one should read, and that we need peer reviewed journals to evaluate the contribution of individual scientists for hiring, funding and promotion.
“Attempts to upend, reform or even tinker with peer review are regarded as apostasies. But the truth is that peer review as practiced in the 21st century poisons science. It is conservative, cumbersome, capricious and intrusive. It encourages group think, slows down the communication of new ideas and discoveries, and has ceded undue power to a handful of journals who stand as gatekeepers to success in the field.
“Each round of reviews takes a month or more, and it is rare for papers to be accepted without demanding additional experiments, analyses and rewrites, which take months or sometimes years to accomplish.
“And this time matters. The scientific enterprise is all about building on the results of others – but this can’t be done if the results of others are languishing in peer review. There can be little doubt that this delay slows down scientific progress and often costs lives.”

Eisen continued,
“So, while it is a nice idea to imagine peer review as defender of scientific integrity – it isn’t. Flaws in a paper are far more often uncovered after the paper is published than in peer review. And yet, because we have a system that places so much emphasis on where a paper is published, we have no effective way to annotate previously published papers that turn out to be wrong.”

Flawed stem cell research has made international headlines in recent months. They came in the case of a peer-reviewed paper published in the world's most prestigious journal, Nature. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other examples exist that are chronicled on a Web site called Retraction Watch.
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:53 PM

    Unbelievable!!! Conflicts of SELFISH interests explain why many enterprises are OBSTRUCTED. I call on every person who recognizes OBSTRUCTION to CONFRONT it. Work in the PUBLIC INTEREST for the common good. Blow the whistle, name names. THANK YOU MICHAEL EISEN !!!!! I call on the people of the MEDICAL INDUSTRY to speak up for a SINGLE PAYER SYSTEM. ... I wonder why they don't start a movement? They could have saved our country BILLIONS. Why be a hero??? You'll be proud of yourself. MM Retired teacher