Friday Night Experiments

Tonight I watched a BBC documentary about Nobel Laureate Andre Geim. Each episode of Beautiful Minds (am I alone in thinking the title is a little bit naff?) covers the story behind the success of a particular scientist. Geim is a really interesting character and I recommend watching it.

One part I found particularly inspiring. He attributes a lot of his success to “Friday Night Experiments”, during which he does some quick experiments to try out new, more adventurous ideas. It was during one of these that he discovered that you can use scotch tape to mechanically exfoliate graphene from graphite.

Obviously there were loads of unsuccessful Friday nights before the discovery of graphene. He went on to say that the most important thing to remember is to know when to cut your losses and try something else. By trying out lots of new ideas every week, seeing what doesn’t work and what is promising, he has made some great breakthroughs in a wide range of fields.

I can see how for a postgraduate it is easy to become obsessed with getting a particular experiment to work or become completely blinkered on a particular sub-sub-sub-area of a discipline. You are meant to work really hard on a particular area in a PhD after all. But rather than working solely on one approach to my research, Geim has inspired me to get in the lab and try out some of my slightly more adventurous ideas every now and then. Most probably won’t work, but one might.

On the value of journal editors (and why green open access won’t work)

Previously I argued that traditional journals should be abandoned and green open access repositories like arXiv are the way forward. More recently I praised the “DIY” open access journal The Journal of Machine Learning Research run by researchers, writing that chemists should do something similar.

But now I think I’m wrong because I’ve underestimated the value of journal editors.

On Stephen Curry’s blog a commenter said:

“The current system of peer-reviewed journals is altogether very flawed. … [A]t the end of the day, the journals make millions just formatting, laying them out and sending a few emails. This just cannot be right.”

6 months ago I would have probably agreed. Anonymous Publishing Employee replied (it’s worth reading in full) saying that they are wrong because they underestimate the work a journal really does. Editors have to decide whether a paper fits in with their journal and is worth sending for review, obviously requiring technical knowledge. If it is worth sending they have to decide who to send it to, requiring personal knowledge of the scientists. A lot of administrative time is spent chasing up reviewers, but once the reviews are in the editor has to make a decision or repeat the review process again. If accepted, subsequent copy editing and layout takes time (money) and there are other indirect costs too, e.g. IT and rent. The main expense, they believe, is salaries (not that surprising).

Before I’ve said that peer review would work in green OA repos, but now I think I was wrong. Editors have a lot of specialist knowledge that ensures the right people review papers. It’s also required to finally decide whether to accept or reject a paper. I now doubt that a comparable level of peer review would happen in a repository. There’s no incentive for scientists to review post-publication. With a journal, there’s a certain amount of flattery involved when a scientist is asked to review by an editor. In effect, the editors drive the peer review process forwards, whereas it might never get started in a repo.

Furthermore, if we only had green OA repositories there would be another loss that I’ve never considered before: the commentaries, reviews, editorials and research highlights that complement the original research articles.

Screenshot from the current issue web page for the latest issue of Nature Chemistry

These are written or commissioned by editors. Recently I’ve really enjoyed the extra content in Nature Chemistry. An interview with Chief Editor Stuart Cantrill goes into more depth about the work behind the scenes. Lab on a Chip is another journal that I like to keep track of—obviously much more specialised than Nature Chemistry—and it has similar articles.

A complete shift to green OA would result in the loss of this valuable content. Websites or blogs might spring up to take it’s place, but I doubt it would be of the same calibre. It would be a real shame to lose it because it’s a great way to broaden one’s knowledge and stumble across interesting work.

Overall I think I was wrong about green OA repositories. Journal editors (rather than the “journal” in itself) are a valuable asset to the peer review process and scientific endeavour as a whole. Still, more could be done to enhance the transparency of the peer review, but I think that open access publication simply won’t succeed post-publication peer review in green repositories.