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Opportunities for Innovative Publishing in the Electronic Age?

Written by: R. S. J. Sparks
Published on: Mar 19, 2013

I recently experienced difficulty with a peer-reviewed article in an open access electronic journal when I requested some quite simple but important changes. The article had been put online and identified as “provisional” by the publisher. I took this to mean that it had been accepted through peer review but that further revision was possible before formal acceptance. My coauthors and I wanted to add some authors to an already quite long list, and the science content of the article was unaffected. We provided evidence that the contributions of the new authors met the normal standards for authorship. The publisher was, however, reluctant to make the change, stating that such a policy was standard throughout the scientific publishing world, and instead suggested that we publish an electronic erratum. The details of this case are not of concern, but it struck me that some of the protocols of the print age were being unnecessarily transferred to the electronic age. In a more general way there are opportunities for innovation in electronic publishing. Policies and practices that appear to be due to the constraints of print are being inherited by electronic publications for no good reason.

Consider the issue of errata. When mistakes are identified in articles, errata have been the standard way of making corrections, but they are unsatisfactory. They can appear long after the original article is published, and the existence of errata may not be easily recognized by someone looking at the main original publication. This approach is a consequence of the constraints of print. Now that many journals are online, a link from an article to its erratum could be provided so that their existence becomes immediately apparent. Errata could be downloaded with the original article. I looked at a couple of articles where errata existed on the Web sites of two well-known publishers, and such links do not yet exist (AGU journals do provide these links). One could envisage similar links for discussions and replies.

Journals could be even bolder. Electronic media allow corrections to be made directly, and the updated and corrected version of an article could then replace the original version. This could happen at any time after the article is put online, so that from then on no one would be misled by an incorrect equation, wrongly plotted graph, or transcribing errors in a table, for example. This way of dealing with errors is now straightforward in the electronic age. Occasionally, errata report more fundamental flaws or mistakes that are sufficiently significant that parts of a paper need correction or rewriting. In extreme cases an article may need to be withdrawn, which cannot happen for a hard copy journal sitting on a library shelf but can happen in the electronic world.

Of course, authors should not be allowed to just alter their article willy-nilly. There needs to be peer review. Perhaps changes should not be free, and in the open access, author-pays model a charge could be made for corrections. Both peer review and payment can prevent flippant or poorly thought-out changes.

One model is to suggest two categories of correction. Category 1 would involve basic mistakes and errors. Some examples would be an equation is mistyped or has a missing symbol; a table has transposed Sr for Zr data, and this was not noticed; some analytical data were found to be in error after publication because a calibration was done incorrectly, so all the samples have to be reanalyzed; a minor mistake in a numerical calculation is detected but does not affect the interpretation. In category 1, some light-touch peer review would be needed to confirm that any proposed change is necessary and is, indeed, correct. The editor handling the revised paper could decide whether the change is straightforward or needs to be referred to a specialist.

Category 2 would involve significant flaws or errors, where more substantial changes would be needed. For example, parts of the article may need to be revised, calculations need to be redone, or new analyses are needed. More in-depth peer review of proposed changes would be required. In some cases the changes may be so substantial that the recommendation would be that a new paper should be prepared and go through the full peer-review process.

Versioning is a controversial concept but is worth debate now that the constraints of the print age are being removed. The widely criticized practice of “shingling” is a reality. In this practice, authors, for example, get a bit more data and publish a brand new article, which differs only modestly from their previous article. Versioning might be viewed as form of shingling but has some tangible differences. First, the authors would not be claiming that a new version was a new paper to fatten their curricula vitae but that it is an updated version of the same article. Criteria could be established for versioning so that a new version has to significantly improve upon a previous version in some way. For example, new data might strengthen a conclusion, or new insights into an interpretation might be revealed through some improved modeling. Peer review of the new version would be essential. Previous versions could be archived so the progression of data, ideas, and interpretations could be seen. Perhaps comments on an article could result in a new version rather than the classic discussion and reply. Done right, this could lead to more dialogue and constructive exchanges between scientists.

Versioning has the possibility of strengthening rather than just proliferating published science. I am sure many readers can think of numerous objections. Two questions are, How would version control take place, and where would responsibility lie (i.e., with authors, journal editors, or publishers)? Also, how would the system be maintained over time, and how would it be affected by new technologies? However, we need to be sure that objections are not just because “it’s always been done this way” and that the reason for doing it “this way” is not a consequence of having to print the article as a one-time-only publication that then appears as a hard copy journal volume on a library shelf. Electronic publishing opens up new opportunities for innovation.

The idea of versions of a creative product is accepted in other spheres. A composer can rewrite or modify a symphony to improve it, and posterity can judge which versions are the best. Science is, of course, a very different kind of creative process, but why should there not be versions or updates of articles in the electronic age?

In addition to versioning, there are other issues and opportunities too. For instance, electronic media allow supplemental material to allow interaction with data sets. Audio and video components relevant to the research can be envisaged. All links embedded in an article need to work and need to be maintained. There is a great diversity of science publishers in technical publishing, and it is likely that the intense competition in the business will enable innovation. This enterprise will be through a partnership with the science community.

—R. S. J. Sparks, Department of Earth Sciences, Bristol University, Bristol, UK;

Citation: Sparks, R. S. J. (2013), Opportunities for innovative publishing in the electronic age?, Eos Trans. AGU, 94(12), 116, doi:10.1002/2013EO120010.