Do academics need clearer incentives to encourage them to adopt new research communication methods?


Research communication is evolving slightly faster than in the past, it’s not exactly a Cambrian explosion, but the evolutionary analogy is preferable to a revolutionary one. This was the conclusion reached by our panel at the LS2 conference in Zurich last week, which was tasked with discussing “Publishing in the 21st Century.”

Following presentations by Mark Patterson (Executive Director, eLife), Michaela Torkar (Editorial Director, F1000), Barbara Hirschmann (ETH Zurich library) and myself, the panel discussion centered on how to encourage more researchers to use new journal models, consider open access and innovative methods of sharing their research.

Academics are still conservative in how they share their work, tending to stick to the traditional journal route over new platforms with innovations in peer review, accessibility or online social interaction. Is this because they are reluctant to adopt new publishing methods or is it because they are not incentivised to do so? A traditional “publish or perish” mindset persists in many institutions, which often includes the need to publish research in a journal with a high impact factor (an inaccurate form of measuring the content of the article based on the citations obtained by the journal as a whole over preceding years) and to churn out papers on a regular basis. This publication treadmill is a key component in an aspiring researcher’s career, it will determine how and where researchers are hired and acts as a form of currency, still highly valued by institutions, as their academic career develops.

Both eLife and F1000 offer novel approaches to publishing. eLife, a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust, Max Planck Institute and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, allows you to publish an article then build on it with short communications in future, saving the author time and providing a more iterative option to publication. In time, eLife aims to expand this so that other researchers can add to a peer’s article in a similar fashion, thereby creating a publication thread, or network, originating from one piece of research.

F1000 Research operates an open peer review system where the original manuscript is published immediately on submission, the subsequent peer reviews are then published including the names of the reviewers. This system is not only completely transparent, it gives peer reviewers the opportunity to receive credit for their participation in the process, a contribution that has mostly gone unreported in the past.

These are just two (very briefly described) examples of innovative publication models that have appeared in recent years, but several other areas are evolving. These include metrics, social interaction, individual identifiers, co-authoring tools, post-publication review, data publishing and much more. These are coming from a range of startups, non-profits, research organisations and existing publishers.

So why are researchers not embracing these new publication models, most of which are open access and therefore available to a much wider audience, not to mention offering faster peer review turnaround times and a cluster of features that help the author and facilitate the process? The problem is systemic. Until a change is made from the top, change will not come quickly. But who can instigate the change? Is it the responsibility of funding agencies, university departments or hiring committees? Or all of the afore mentioned? How do we encourage researchers to look beyond traditional methods and perhaps even beyond the paper as the main method of research communication?

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