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Guillaume Dumas asked a few questions to Michael Bon, founder of the Self Journal of Science. SJS aims to be the new public place to publish and review scientific articles.
I’m a 34 years old French biophysicist, specialist in problems related to RNA secondary structure prediction. After a few post-docs, I felt that science could not progress with the traditional publishing industry. I got several ideas that help in the building of a thorough alternative.
What’s your definition of Open Science ?
To me, open science just means science. I wish some other term than science is found in the future to refer to science bound by the last few decades’ publishing practices. Then, what I call open science is a community-wide process of contradictory debate aiming at consensus (positive or negative), and one through which the scientific community enforces the principles of science into every individual contribution of its members. The strength, the value and the uniqueness of scientific knowledge originates from this open process.
What is Self Journal of Science ?
SJS is the scientific public place where scientists can deposit, discuss, debate, classify and evaluate their work in a collective way. It works with contradictory debate and consensus and not with individual authority. SJS gives back to scientists their full identity: researcher, reviewer and evaluator of science. Today, 95% of us are only researchers whose fate is to produce articles while the review and the evaluation processes are monopolized by journals. In SJS, the value of a scientific item lies in its ability to rally a consensus within the community after its publication, rather than in private interactions with an editor beforehand. This deeply changes the social game at work behind each and every publication and the relationship between scientists becomes more horizontal. Peer review and evaluation are no longer conflicting and competitive processes but collaborative ones which reward each contributor. In turn, articles are liberated from the restraints of traditional publishing and can reach an unprecedented level of quality with their evaluation becoming more objective, individual and very hard to game – in short, an excellent alternative to the impact factor. Everything is open (articles, but also reviews) and the operating costs of repository websites are reduced to storage costs – negligible in comparison to the current cost of journal publicating. SJS creates an ideal environment and virtuous social logic for science, but of course it can develop only if scientists do use it. It is DIO (Do It Ourselves) publishing !
An important point to note is that because SJS relies on self-organization and consensus, it has no editor. It is a repository rather than a journal. SJS is compatible with existing practices and systems and can be used from now on without risking grants and promotion that still depend on journal reputation.
All these features and their logic are detailed in this article, which is obviously open to reviews, consistent with the spirit of SJS.
How was this project born ?
Just like many other projects, SJS was born out of the realization of how serious the current situation is. Personnally, I’ve been left with a feeling of desperation due to the poor quality of peer review. I am shocked that the process which is used to validate science is itself closed and unverifiable. My personal experience is that what happens secretely in editors’ mailboxes is also often scientifically irrelevant. Most people are individually aware of this but nothing yet has been done to solve the problem of opaqueness and vested interest. I understood that the only reason why this system holds is in fact because of the exclusive use of the impact factor as the way to evaluate the « quality » of articles. When I managed to design a self-organized, collective and collaborative way to evaluate articles in attempt to overcome the monopoly of single parameter metrics, I thought that systems like SJS could hold the key to solving the problems we are facing, and I felt compelled to develop it .
Is SJS open to all scientific fields ? If so, how can one find their way ?
SJS welcomes all scientific fields and facilitates their interaction. As a biophysicist, I’ve definitely experienced how absurd it is to pursue private dissemination through so-called specialized journals. They split the scientifiic community, and as a consequence, biologists and physicists rarely meet each other whereas, the reality of their overlapping investigations means they actually have so much to do together. I found that I had to publish some of my articles twice for them to reach their natural audience !
To address this problem, SJS implements a new classification system based on keywords rather that predetermined static categories. Keywords can belong to many different fields and are a bridge between them. The novelty is that this system of keywords is collectively managed in an evolving structure that I’ve called «the Tree of Knowledge ». It allows the scientific community to build a consensual vocabulary which is always up-to-date, a perfect mapping of scientific knowledge. All materials related to a certain topic can then be instantly, exhaustively and unambiguously extracted, without relying on search engines whose unknown internal mechanics is often a hidden source of biases (how they interpret our queries, how they sort results, problems of duplicity, etc.).
What are your prospects ?
SJS is just a tool, it does nothing by itself. Its future is in the hands of the scientific community.
I can just tell you that, since in SJS the publication process is not filtered by a few people but managed straightforwardly by the whole scientific community, it has no limit and has the potential to handle the increasing volume of scientific output, to provide a long-awaited alternative to the impact factor and to stop the absurd publish-or-perish competition that we are bound to today. The tipping point will be the recognition of SJS evaluation criteria by grant reviewers. Once this point is reached and the participation by the scientific community has reached critical mass, we will be able to safely escape from the current scientific charade.
Personnally, I will obviously try to make contact with all those who share the spirit of SJS, and to popularize it as much as I can. I have been joined recently by OpenScholar, an open organization of scientists which had a similar project but decided to stop it to fully help SJS. We will be working on setting up good principles for the governance of the platform. I invite even more people – such as you and your readers – to join that effort as soon as possible.
Another prospect is to open source SJS, something we will do when there are enough members ( the order of magnitude is 5000-10000 ) and that we can be sure the principle of SJS is well understood. That is unfortunately not the case yet. For instance, a common reaction I get in conferences is the request for several disconnected copies of SJS for different fields or institutes – but this is mistaken as it maintains all kinds of artificial walls within the scientific community !
How can we help SJS ?
If you support the concept of SJS, you should not wait and register now! Then, every scientist can uniquely further support SJS, by putting their scientific value in it in parallel to the traditional publishing system.
A scientist’s value manifests itself in essentially 3 dimensions: as a researcher, as a reviewer and as an evaluator. To contribute to the first, all that is required is to just upload your pre-prints, published articles (if you still have the right) or any material that is fit for scientific debate. For the second, openly discuss SJS’ digital material that is of interest to you, while being sure that its authors will be happy to reply to you. The third is very important, and moreover it is one that you cannot express unless you are an editor. SJS allows you to edit your own « self-journal », which is an annotated selection of articles from all sources (uploaded on SJS or not). Every scientist has his/her own vision of what is important in his/her field: come and take a few minutes to materialize yours on SJS. This work of curation – that most of us have already done in one way or another on our own computer – will be benefitial to all (and even more to you, since your vision will shared and distributed) and will bring a lot more people to SJS. Individual self-journals are the basis of SJS’s evaluation system and is the cornerstone that will make it work and have huge impact.
Of course, it is possible to do even more, e.g. by helping popularizing the SJS website, or by contacting me or OpenScholar to work on improving it.
Could you give some advice to young researchers ?
It is difficult to give any advice to a young researcher, especially as my own path is full of uncertainty. However, I would like to share my thoughts on the future of Open Science. It concerns all scientists but may be of particular interest to the youngest ones, i.e. the bottom of the current hierarchy and those who are the majority of the scientific workforce in today’s digital global village.
I think you will all agree that we need to change the traditional publication system. I think the only correct move is to give back the control of science to the whole scientific community, including you the youngest of our colleagues. Only this can stop science from behaving like a religion or a market, and will help bring freedom and optimal quality to scientific knowledge as it continues to expand. However, giving power back to scientists to create value in science is a challenge that will affect us all and in particular for stakeholders.
If you agree that such a move is the right move, it would be foolish after nearly 4 centuries to expect it to materialize in a top-down fashion. No financial interest will encourage you to escape its monopoly. Few scientific leaders who have reached the top of the hierarchy under current rules, will easily accept such a change. Furthermore, it is not current institutional logic to create a global horizontal structure which they could not control. While they will no doubt recognize its value afterwards since it is in fact their best interest, it is not something they are in a position to build themselves.
Therefore, it is very unlikely that traditional publishing stakeholders will give us back our legitimate powers. As the system is imploding, I rather expect them to increase our non-scientific workload in the pursuit of grants, leaving us with little time for what interests us in an evironment where competition is becoming more and more fierce as funding resources dry up.
Then, it is up to us (me, you and fellow scientists) to do something. With SJS, I propose a quiet way to create an alternative and trustworthy scientific value under the control of the scientific community. It can grow without the need for a direct conflict with the current system, i.e. SJS’ users take no risks. If you believe that such a thing can work, you must make it work by taking a little time to put your own – irreplaceable – value in it. If you find something better that SJS, go for it ! But if you just tweet about it and come back in 6 months to see if it « works », you can be sure that nothing will have changed. The impact factor business will continue to prevail and to pursue its logic to the painful end of « centres of excellence » and a desert of underfunded research institutes. As a rule, eveything you give up doing, will be done by a private interest, for its benefit, at your expense, in a less relevant and more expensive way. Therefore, take action ! Do not wait for the approval of people who will never give it anyway. Take the first step in a way where nobody else has an interest in preceding you. Take back your legitimate influence over the course of science ! Now there is at least one way to do it.
Michael Bon questions asked by Guillaume Dumas