Following the current controversy over open access research and scientific publishing, a couple more items have surfaced to lend color to the debate. For one, scientific publisher Wiley is trialing a system of “transferable peer review” to speed and systematize the assessment of new research before publication.

“On average, peer review takes 80 days. That’s 1,920 hours of waiting for a decision,” states the Wiley announcement.  “And it all starts over if a paper gets rejected. We think that’s a long time. We know you do too. So, why not review a paper just once? If a paper is rejected, the review travels with it. We call this transferable peer review and we’re rolling it out across 9 of our high impact, neuroscience journals. Papers submitted to these journals will be reviewed as usual, but with the addition of a scorecard that will be used by all 9 titles. If the paper is rejected, authors can choose to transfer their paper along with the review and scorecard to another journal in the pilot, and receive a speedier decision.” Whether this addresses the criticisms made by Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman and others of the influence of big-name scientific journals on research remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Macmillan Science and Education has announced that its division Digital Science, which “ develops and supports technology that makes research more efficient,” will be “donating the SureChem collection of >15million chemical structures from world patents into the public domain through the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). It is the first time a world patent chemistry collection has been made publicly available, marking a significant advance in Open Data for use in drug discovery. “

scientific publishing

I’m sure this is a very high-minded and public-spirited decision by Macmillan. I’m just flabbergasted to learn that they had control of all those world patents in the first place.  As a non-scientist, I am completely fascinated to learn that a publishing company has such deep reach into scientific research and intellectual property. Does this mean that, as well as acquiring copyright on our cultural heritage, and withholding and controlling the great works of our literary past, publishers can also patent our actual genes and get a handle on our biological heritage too? Stunning stuff.

“We’re integrating patent chemistry into the scientific community and giving customers control over data,” declares the SureChem site. Perhaps it’s about time. What was happening to that data in the interim? Are similar archives held by other publishing companies or scientific magazines and still kept as proprietary data? What is the effect on drug discovery and development of new medicines? Let alone in other areas of science?

I’d really like to know the answers to those questions, from a qualified specialist, because what we’ve seen in other contexts is really not reassuring. And the Macmillan and Wiley announcements both show how much influence publishers can actually have on science. It would be really comforting (or not) to learn whose interests are being put first.