The costs of publication delays

Joe Pickrell has written a valuable post on Genomes Unzipped about the future of publication in genetics: “The first steps towards a modern system of scientific publication”. One thought-provoking passage:

In my experience, this lag time [between submission and publication] is on average about six months, with a non-trivial long tail of papers that take much longer. To put this in context with some back-of-the-envelope calculations, lets define a unit of time called a Scientific Career (SC), and let 1 SC equal 30 years. If there are 50,000 papers published in biology per year (this number is somewhat random, but probably within an order of magnitude given that about 500k papers are added to PubMed per year), and on average each paper takes 6 months to go through the review process, then each year ~800 Scientific Careers are spent bringing papers from initial submission to formal publication. It would be a laughable to argue that 800 SCs of research or value have been added to the papers during this process (lets be honestfor most of that time the papers are just sitting on someones desk waiting to be read). The system of pre-publication peer review thus dramatically retards scientific progress.

Pickrell is arguing only that preprints help to address this unnecessary delay. I agree. In biological anthropology, the lag is typically much longer than six months.

Of course some of the delay happens when papers are sitting on reviewers’ or editors’ desks. This situation could be improved if reviewers were paid or given formal recognition for their efforts. Also, papers are substantially delayed when rejected by a journal because they don’t match the journal’s focus or desire for news value. Authors are partly to blame for mistargeting these manuscripts. If preprints were routinely posted, the authors would suffer the pain of resubmitting without having their work remain unavailable to everyone else. Of course, this reduces news value of publication, but we need to eliminate the myth that publication itself is a newsworthy event.

The post has an excellent, long comment by commenter asdf, featuring this:

The solution: adopt the culture of open source, where source is assumed to be fragile and bug reports are met with patches. Reject the culture of academia, where peer reviewed papers are assumed to be correct, while corrections and retractions carry a career penalty.

She’s describing the myth that getting your work published is the point when it becomes valuable. You can see how that myth hurts the public by conveying a mistaken picture of how science works. It also hurts science by creating incentives for misbehavior by scientists.

Mostly unrelated: While writing this, I was reminded of my post from last year, “Peer review in Castle Wolfenstein”.