Opening the Record of Science: making scholarly publishing work for science in the digital era.
Science1 is indispensable to the human endeavour as a fundamental part of its intellectual infrastructure. Its distinctive value derives from open scrutiny of concepts based on evidence and tested against reality, logic and the scepticism of peers. The knowledge that it has accumulated since the earliest days of scientific practice is continually refreshed, renewed and re-evaluated by new experiments, new observations, new theoretical insights, and publicly communicated in the published record of science. This public record exposes the logic and evidence of truth claims to scrutiny, making science accessible to all who would use it, whether scientists, governments or wider society, with the potential for innovative use in a myriad of educational, social, economic and cultural settings. Publication processes are essential to science and to its function as a global public good.
Although rapid technological, scientific, commercial or political trends may influence scientific processes and priorities, a number of fundamental principles for scientific publishing are advocated in the belief that they represent continuing principles that are likely to be durable in the long term:
I. There should be universal open access to the record of science, both for producers and consumers, with no unnecessary barriers to participation, in particular those based on ability to pay, institutional privilege, language or geography.
II. Scientific publications should carry open licenses that support re-use and text and data mining.
III. Rigorous and ongoing peer review must occur at some stage of the publication process.
IV. The data2 and evidence on which a published truth claim is based should be concurrently accessible to scrutiny and supported by necessary metadata.
V. The record of science should be maintained in such a way as to ensure open access by future generations.
VI. Publication traditions of different disciplines should be respected, whilst at the same time encouraged to find means of integrating their different contributions in the shared enterprise of knowledge. Publications should be explicit about the quality standards to which they adhere.
VII. Publication systems should continually adapt to new opportunities for beneficial change rather than inflexible systems being embedded that inhibit change.
Much modern science involves a research cycle. Its nature varies across the disciplines of science, but tends to proceed through stages of project conception, formulation, funding, research, submission, peer review, publication, and reformulation for further research. In the era of print
1 Throughout this document, the word science is used to refer to the systematic organization of knowledge that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. It is inclusive of the natural (including physical, mathematical and life) sciences and social (including behavioural and economic) science domains that represent the International Science Council’s primary focus, as well as the humanities, medical, health, computer and engineering sciences (from the ISC High Level Strategy ). It is recognized that there is no single word or phrase that adequately describes this knowledge community. It is hoped that this shorthand will be accepted in the sense intended.
2 We use “data” to refer to digital or text information, images, objects, audio or film resources, all of which can be digitally represented.
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technologies, the staging points in the cycle tended to be relatively discrete with publication as a self-contained end point. Digital technologies have changed that, with all elements in the cycle being connected, or connectable, and publishable as seamless output with digital interoperability. This has major implications for economic models of publication and for the management of scholarly communication.
A central issue is the extent to which modern publication norms and practices are well adapted to the needs of science, as represented by principles I-VII above, and how they might or should develop in response to digital opportunities. From the 1960s/70s, journals that had hitherto been largely published by not-for-profit learned societies and universities were progressively and selectively acquired by commercial publishers. Increasing global investments in science and the scientific workforce and diversification of the scientific effort has led to the proliferation of new disciplines and sub-disciplines, creating a demand for more and more diverse publishing outlets. A highly asymmetric and lucrative business model of publishing has developed to exploit that demand, which yields profits in excess of 30%. Researchers are both providers and consumers of the published knowledge and publishers the intermediaries, with the ownership of so-called “high impact” journals as a unique selling point. The consequences have been the privatisation of a large part of the publicly funded record of science, high paywalls that restrict public and researcher access to that record, inhibition of text and data mining processes that are powerful means of discovering knowledge in the record, and a costly publishing system that hinders the development of science in low-income countries.
Reactions to these trends from the scientific community over the last two decades have led to the rise of “open access publishing”, which is now responsible for about 47% of scientific publishing. It is based on the principle of free access to the record of science and licenses that do not inhibit copying or any form of re-use.
Over the same period, the digital revolution has produced an enormous expansion in the data available to science. Making data that supports a published truth claim open to scrutiny remains as important as ever, but more difficult and onerous, as massive data volumes cannot be contained within the bounds of a typical publication. A form of “binary publication” should become standard in such cases, in which data is made available in an accessible, trusted repository concurrently with the publication to which it refers. However, increasingly large and complex datasets, possibly coupled with a desire to withhold data for whatever reason, have created a situation in which data and metadata are not routinely available alongside a published truth claim. This is a serious omission. Publishing the data is as important, and sometimes more important, than publishing the written text, and one to which no paywall should be applied.
There are however cases in which open data publication is not appropriate, for example where such access would prejudice privacy, safety, security or has potential for harmful dual use. In such cases it is important that: a) the data are retained somewhere, b) there are well managed pathways to access for referees and bona fide researchers; c) they conform to FAIR criteria.
Digital technologies have also opened the way to linking the elements and infrastructures of the research cycle that enable not only the creation of important research management, assessment and evaluation statistics, but also by embedding them in the Web as structured Web objects. This would permit scientific papers to be linked to data, experiments, software, and workflows. It could make the value that is currently hidden in the research cycle, and currently inaccessible, available for
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further analysis. It would enable AI systems that could organise scientific processes and re-run experiments, re-analyse results and explore hypotheses in systematic and unbiased ways. It could realise the promise of open science and reproducible research, and open new pathways to serendipitous discovery. It would permit future developments to be built on open source rather than proprietary systems, thereby avoiding monopolies and stimulating innovation.
Such possibilities may be inhibited however by increasing commercial control. The information acquired by major publishing companies in the course of their activities gives them prior and exclusive access to these data, with the consequence that some now seek to monetise the whole of the research cycle by marketing data analytics and research management services to universities and research funders. A fundamental question for these bodies and for the wider science community is whether they are content that a significant part of the governance of the public research process should fall into private hands, whose principal loyalty is to their shareholders and not to the advancement of knowledge. It is also important to understand how public/private partnerships can avoid inhibiting the flow of knowledge from joint activities into the public sphere.
The priorities for scientific publishing must be influenced by changes in the environment in which science is done. Three major such influences are identified: societal demands on science to address major global challenges, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the potential to use the tools of the digital revolution to unlock the complexity that characterizes many of these challenges; and the democratisation of information and knowledge created by the advent of the World Wide Web. These influences, together with an increasingly collaborative discourse within science and scholarship and enabling technological tools, converge in the growing open science movement, in which open access publication and open data (subject to limitations on grounds of safety, security and privacy) are core principles and which increasingly stresses greater openness to and engagement with society. It is important to recognise the imperative for an authentic global knowledge commons that does not merely reinforce the hegemony of historic centres of scientific effort. If the publishing system is to adapt to the needs of science and scholarship in responding to this agenda and to adhere to principles I-VII, it will need to address the motivations, incentives and metrics that influence the behaviour of its stakeholders.
Our overall conclusion is that the current system of publishing is not optimal and needs radical revision. Priorities for action are listed in relation to each of the principles in I-VII. There are a number of important issues that will determine whether and how these principles are realized: acceptance of relevant responsibilities by researchers, universities, scientific unions, associations and academies, libraries, funders and publishers; amendment of the incentives that condition behaviours of these stakeholders; and discussion and possible action on modes of governance surrounding modern publication regimes.
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