Open-door Publishing

(August 14th, 2014) Open access publishing has broken the barricades in Science, allowing better access to invention and discoveries. The new journal Winnower gives a whole new dimension to transparency in academic publishing - all the way from submission to reviewing, rejection and retraction.

The term “open access” was coined relatively recently with the dawn of the www-era. The main motive of the open access initiative has been to enhance research impact and citation. Open access publishing has broadened scientific reach and added new audiences to innovation and discoveries. Scientists, however, continue to be daunted by the onerous process of publication, sometimes including painful rejections and retractions. One of the reasons for this has been anonymous and inappropriate peer reviews. How can publishing be made more objective?

Joshua Nicholson, a PhD student at Virginia Tech, USA, stumbled on the idea of starting an open access journal very early in his career. Winnower was launched earlier this year and is aimed at making the entire process of scientific publishing – all the way from submission to reviewing, rejection and publication – transparent. In an interview with Philip Young of Open@VT Joshua expressed that, “The main objective of Winnower”, as the name suggests, “is to identify good pieces of research from flawed pieces based on open post-publication review.”

Unlike other peer-reviewed journals, the online journal Winnower allows authors to instantly publish their research for a small fee, in what is called a “pre-print”. The site encourages authors to invite reviewers, which may seemingly bias the reviews. But this barely interferes with the credibility of the research given that all correspondence is readily accessible to the public. Greater transparency also eliminates personal or inappropriate reviews from anonymous reviewers. Following their reception and review by visitors to the site, the articles change status to 'reviewed'. “Reviews are open and available for variable amounts of time allowing authors to make necessary edits,” states Joshua. Moreover, reviews can be collected over the entire lifetime of an article and serve as endorsements of visitors. Naturally, more reviews indicate more visits.

On what basis an article can be deemed reviewed and how the reviews can be ‘measured’ are some of the questions the founders are confronted with. “We want to change the conversation from ‘passing’ peer review to what is the percent confidence scientists have in this paper. To accomplish this, we will be implementing semi-structured reviews (to make them quantitative),” Joshua remarks. PLoS is working on developing a system to numerically score reviews based on select criteria and in his interview, Joshua mentions a likely collaboration with PLoS to imbibe this.

The site also employs article-level metrics for quantitative assessment of research articles. As Joshua points out, “We want to shift the focus from the journal to the article itself and we think employing various article-level metrics viz. altmetrics is the best way to do this.” The catch here is Winnower’s lack of impact factor (IF), indexing, etc., which form the basis of paper submission and review. This is a more generic obstacle for the entire scientific community according to Joshua. He believes that newer ways to evaluate researchers, besides merely by IF, may change this scenario.

Submissions to Winnower currently fall into 8 fields including mathematics, basic sciences and social sciences. Another interesting feature of the site is the Grain and the Chaff section. Here, authors can submit 1000-word essays of their experiences during the publication process. The Grain will be short essays on how the work was received and reviewed, rejected or accepted. The authors in this section are chosen based on the altmetric score or citations of their research papers. The Chaff is a place for authors of retracted papers to discuss the reasons behind the retraction, the fallacies or inaccuracies of their work. “We want to position papers published in The Chaff in a non-accusatory manner so that we may learn from these papers. The Chaff will not be a forum to castigate authors of retracted papers,” says Joshua.

In sum, Winnower has all the potential to revamp scientific publishing by switching from a closed anonymous system to an open system. It also allows research to be conveyed to the public with all its imperfections and exceptions, as how Science truly is, without embellishing data in order to be accepted.

Madhuvanthi Kannan

Last Changes: 09.19.2014