Academic publishing today employs many of the models that have served it for decades, even as the IT revolution has otherwise swept across the publishing landscape.
The Swiss-based open-access publisher Frontiers is looking to change this.
In only a few years Frontiers (frontiersin.org) has successfully launched journals in 12 fields — including microbiology, neuroscience and pharmacology — covering a broad range of optical techniques along the way, from two-photon microscopy to optogenetics. Its mission, said Costanza Zucca, editorial manager with Frontiers: put scientific publishing back in the hands of scientists while ensuring that scientists benefit from cutting-edge IT technologies.
Founded in 2007 as a grass-roots initiative by scientists, the publisher maintains its deep roots in scientific communities. “Frontiers is very much a community-driven endeavor, which serves the communities and introduces a bottom-up approach to publishing,” Zucca said. “Our journals are built around academic communities and we encourage researchers themselves to determine the relevant target for their communities.”
Indeed, the publishers views this focus as one of their primary strengths. After all, they argue, why shouldn’t working scientists lead the way in transforming academic publishing? Who knows better the many challenges of publishing scientific research?
Chief among these: the peer review process. Peer review may well be the most effective means of evaluating research submitted for publication, but it introduces an element of subjectivity that can work against a paper’s authors (See: Who Reviews the Review?
for a discussion of peer review as it pertains to NIH grants). Frontiers seeks to address the issues that can arise during peer review.
First, said Zucca, it encourages reviews that focus on the accuracy of the research. Reviewers primarily look at objective issues such as insufficient data and incorrect analysis, with subjective issues — significance, novelty, etc. — provided only as recommendations to authors.
Also, while reviewers’ anonymity is maintained during the review process, the names of editors and reviewers are disclosed on published papers. This serves to acknowledge their essential efforts in the peer review, said Zucca, but at the same time it gives authors the opportunity to have their work evaluated in “the most unbiased and transparent way.”
Importantly, having reviewers focus on accuracy in the manuscripts also serves to decouple the peer review process from evaluation of the results’ significance. Instead, this evaluation is done post-publication by tracking reader activity with respect to individual papers.
“Because of the open-access distribution, anyone can read Frontiers papers, and our web analytics tools keep track of all article downloads, views, shares, comments, ratings, and so on,” Zucca said. “Based on these indicators, we can distill in the most democratic way what research is being read by experts in the field, and therefore present the most outstanding results and discoveries in the form of focused reviews, written for a broader public.”
And that’s just one of the ways the Frontiers community is benefiting from IT technology. In February the publisher introduced social media to its website. Here, researchers can post videos, blogs, publications, images, news and so on. Any content can be commented on and shared with colleagues — either within the site or through Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, for example.
Most importantly, said Frontiers co-founder Kamila Markram in a blog post about the move, people can follow your research updates without having to “friend” you or ask your approval. Thus, every paper you publish on Frontiers or post from elsewhere is automatically distributed to your “followers.”
She continued: “It is in our interest as researchers to have our papers read by as many colleagues as possible. This is the main goal of publishing your article in an open-access journal and it is the goal of linking a social networking platform to these open-access articles.”
Users are still mostly active in the journal pages, Zucca said — overall, articles receive more than 5 million views and downloads from some 500,000 visitors each month — but the research networking part of the site is gaining traction. For example, some video lectures have been watched thousands of times on the Frontiers page, considerably more views than the same lectures have received on YouTube.