Michael Eisen, strong proponent of open access and preprints, stopped by and left a comment on my previous post. You can read it in situ here. This is my response.
"There's a simple solution ... don't do it that way. Don't think anyone thinks it's a good idea to have journals run pre-print servers. This is something to be done by the National Library of Medicine and NSF in US and by comparable organizations internationally who share preprints and create a resource where anyone - researchers, healthcare works, teachers, students, interested members of the public - can get access to any paper published by anyone, anywhere. You really think that this is a bad thing?"
I absolutely agree that it's a bad idea to have journals run preprint servers. But who or what is going to stop them? Federal mandate? That hasn't worked so well for PubMed Central. Community pressure? It's certainly growing with OA, but preprints are a significantly greater shift from the cultural norm, so it will likely take much longer.
As we've seen with predatory OA journals, any git with a PC and internet connection could, in principle, set up a preprint server. They likely won't because, unlike OA, it would be hard to make a profit. But the point is it's ridiculously easy, and if journals see some advantage to doing so, they will. Glammagz will respond to anything they perceive as a threat to the glamhumping culture their empires are built upon. Will that response take the form of preprint servers? Who knows. Just don't underestimate them.
Do I think preprint servers are a bad thing? I noted in my post I was considering using them, so no, I don't think they're a bad thing. I do have concerns though and I'll discuss those below.
"Yes, it's possible to corrupt such a system if we don't make sure it's structured and run fairly. But the solution is to do it well. And you really think complaints about science publishing are a fad? You really think a system that costs billions of dollars, is deeply biased and is structured to all but ensure that the rich get richer, takes longer to publish papers than it does to send rockets to Mars, and which denies 99.99% of the people on the planet, including over 99% of teachers and students, and well over 50% of practicing scientists access isn't borked?"
I would love to see a system that's run fairly. And done well. But who's going to enforce that?
My fad comment was not to do with complaints about science publishing. It was aimed at preprints. They can be called a fad in the same way many things can. Some fads disappear, some go on to become mainstream (rock and roll was once considered a fad). At this point I don't believe preprints have gained sufficient traction in the biosciences to know which way they'll go.
I'm a supporter of making the results of research available to all, and I do believe there are issues with publishing. Not necessarily all the same ones you do. For example, the journals I submit to take way less time to review and publish manuscripts than it takes to get to Mars.* Perhaps people should try submitting to places with more reasonable turnaround times. And I believe in peer review, warts and all.
But let me ask you, will widespread adoption of preprint servers cause a new set of problems? I like the idea of making research results available to all, but without prior review? Not so much. What's to stop deposition of pseudoscience in preprint servers?** Sure practicing scientists are capable of judging the science or lack thereof, and should be doing so. But the public? Don't give me some bull about post-deposition, pre-publication review. That relies way too much on people bothering to record their thoughts (PubMed Commons hasn't exactly been a runaway success). And how are the public to judge any such comments that are recorded? >98% of all climate scientists agree climate change is an urgent issue bordering on disaster, yet large swathes of the public remain skeptical. Paid much attention to what's going on in Britain? Homeopathy is a part of their national healthcare system. Put there by college-educated people, some of whom have MDs. All of this will be made worse if preprint servers are run by the NLM and/or NSF (as I've agreed they probably should be) and have the associated implied stamp of government approval. The public isn't stupid. They just don't necessarily have the tools required to judge the science (and pseudoscience) that would become available. Shouldn't that be a concern?
* As I was typing this I got reviews back for a submitted manuscript. Three weeks from submission to reviews.
** Yes, I am aware that some pseudoscience slips through the current peer-review process. Addressing a slow drip by shearing the faucet off the wall doesn't seem terribly sensible to me.