The ISC Report on the Future of Scientific Publishing

The International Science Council (ISC) has issued two recent papers on scientific publishing, "Key Principles for Scientific Publishing (and the extent to which they are observed)" and "The Case for Reform of Scientific Publishing" .

The ISC will be taking comments on these reports until March 1, 2024. Because a number of the arguments made here are somewhat controversial, ICIAM members are encouraged to voice their opinions by scrolling down to the bottom of the second online report and completing the survey there.

The reports are the product of several years of discussion by international committees, both of them chaired by Geoffrey Boulton, a well-respected British geoscientist. The committees, as might be expected, were truly international, with members from all continents. The first, short paper documents eight "key principles". As befits an organization that is aware of the disadvantages scientists in many countries face in obtaining access to publications, the report devotes several points to access to published work, and also to publishing and distributing one's work. The first principle, for example, is that there should be "universal, prompt open access ... with no barriers to participation ... based on ability to pay, institutional privilege, language or geography". Peer review is emphasized: "rigorous, timely, ongoing peer review". In an online discussion of the report, Professor Boulton commented that pre-publication peer review is haphazard and not very useful. Definitive review, particularly in the lab sciences, is guaranteed only by replication of the results. Some of the principles are less clear. The need for respect for different disciplines and cultures is fair enough; the report also expresses concern about the "governance" of the publication process. Specifically it is concerned by the claimed monopolization of publishing by "major commercial publishers", who appear in the report as agents with few redeeming qualities. 

That many of these principles are not observed leaves questions that are partially addressed in the second report, which is authored by a smaller committee, with some overlap in personnel with the first. One might summarize its regretful, somewhat querulous tone as a lament that the promise of the digital revolution has been deflected by some major villains: the use of bibliometric indices to evaluate scientists' productivity, and a vast predatory publishing industry.

The argument makes interesting reading. Most of the mathematicians reading this review may find that the impact of these deficiencies in the system on their careers is small. But it does not take much imagination to see that the advent of "large language" AI systems may lead to plagiarism on a large scale, and that the clogging of avenues of scientific exchange by junk publications is not only inefficient for scientists in search of trustworthy results but provides an opportunity for mischief-making and conspiracy theories.

Scientific research is expensive. That it is performed at all is due to someone's footing the bill - often a government agency, a public or private sector research laboratory, or a university whose revenue may derive from a combination of public and private, mission-oriented or philanthropic, sources. One of the most cogent findings of this committee is that publication is an essential part of scientific research, and should not be considered or funded separately. And once the powerful interests that fund research take it into their hands to restore agency over publication to the scientific community, rather than leaving individual scientists to navigate unaided the maze of adding to and retrieving the scientific record, we may see better days. 

An interesting comment, almost off-hand, is found in item 14 of the report (which is organized as numbered bullets - 30 of them altogether). Why has the advent of digital technology and the internet failed to do more than simply replace the printed page with a PDF of that page? Later on, in items 18 and 19, the committee notes the potential for harm of generative AI, but does not envisage any potential for good.

The focus on the evil of commercial publishers will be irritating to some readers and will be applauded by others, so let's leave that argument aside. The idea that new digital technologies present an opportunity to realize the principles formulated in the first report, and what is wanting is the imagination to take advantage of this opportunity, offers a challenge to everone in the scientific community. After all, this report is making the case for reform, not trying to guess how it will happen. Perhaps we can anticipate a further report: "The reform is taking place".


Barbara Lee Keyfitz

Barbara Lee Keyfitz is Professor of Mathematics at The Ohio State University. Her research area is the analysis of partial differential equations. She is a former president of ICIAM, and is Editor-in-Chief of the ICIAM Dianoia.