The past few years have been a period of significant turmoil--some of it quite constructive--for publishers and editors of science journals. Controversies regarding potential conflicts of interest have led some journals to reexamine their rules for revealing the financial relationships of published researchers. Competition from free online "open access" journals, such as the six new journals published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science, has led several mainstream print journals to beef up their online offerings. And some notable journals concerned about fraudulent research have reportedly improved the screening of manuscripts under consideration, in an attempt to catch those who would misrepresent or "beautify" their data. ("Let's celebrate real data," the editors of Nature Cell Biology recently wrote, "wrinkles, warts, and all.")
The most interesting change stirring in the world of science and medical journals--and the change likely to have the most far-reaching impact--relates to peer review. Also known as "refereeing," the peer review process is used by journal editors to aid in deciding which papers are worth publishing. Some researchers may assume that peer review is a nuisance that scientists have always had to tolerate in order to be published. In reality, peer review is a fairly recent innovation, not widespread until the middle of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, many science journals were commandingly led by what Ohio State University science historian John C. Burnham dubbed "crusading and colorful editors," who made their publications "personal mouthpieces" for their individual views. There were often more journals than scientific and medical papers to publish; the last thing needed was a process for weeding out articles.
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