The secretive world of biomedical research

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6 July 2015

The secretive world of biomedical research

Vitek Tracz, Chairman and Founder of F1000, explains how the internet is being used to share new scientific research quickly and openly

I was, for many years, a typical publisher of scientific books and journals, but when the web arrived in the 1990s, I had a partial conversion and helped to create an online community for scientists (BioMedNet) and an associated web magazine (HMS Beagle).

Soon afterwards, I realised that it was both possible and important to provide open, public access to research articles that were normally locked away behind subscription barriers. I launched the first open access publisher, BioMed Central, and was part of a small group of key individuals involved in launching the first open access repository, PubMed Central in 2000. I was the only publisher in that group; the others were scientists.

I continue to be a passionate advocate of open, online public access to scientific research and have since launched F1000 – an online community of more than 10,000 biomedical experts who help scientists to discover, write and publish research. We are working hard to try to tackle what we regard as ‘the deadly sins’ of science publishing, particularly problems around secrecy and delay.

For example, I find it incredible that researchers who wish to publish findings in the fields of biology and medicine are accustomed to delays that regularly run anywhere from six months to one year before their results become public in scientific journals.

Who benefits from this delay? Why is no one complaining? Findings that might be useful in research today will be all too often hidden for an inexcusably long time. Why are there no demonstrations of scientists in front of journal offices with placards saying ‘No to Delay’, ‘Down with Journals’, or ‘Out with Editors’?

It is the scientific journals themselves, the academic editors, and the processes that they operate in secret that are all responsible for these delays. Even some open access journals can be as guilty of this as traditional, closed access journals.

I do not think that scientists need journals or editors to decide what should be published. Scientists read articles, not journals. Current search methods, encompassing Google Scholar, PubMed and many others, generally enable us to find the article that we want to read very rapidly, and search technology continues to improve as more industries switch to the digital medium.

Following the advent of the web, journals have ceased to be important for readers but have maintained importance for authors who want to get the reflected benefit of the impact factor – a measurement of success that can play a major role in deciding their future as a scientific researcher. As a result, researchers and authors voluntarily relinquish control over the publication process (and consequently also over the public discourse on science as a whole) to journals and their editors who make decisions for their own reasons.

The editors who exert control over the publication process decide what and when to publish (or perhaps more often, what not to publish), but may not always be experts in the specific topic of the individual paper to really make this decision. They rely on the undisclosed advice of secretly appointed referees, who may do their work poorly (nobody but the editor will know), and may have obvious conflicts of interest (for example, they might be a direct competitor).

About two years ago, we started publishing research articles in a completely new way via an F1000 service called F1000Research – an author-led publishing platform for biological and medical research that makes no editorial decisions, performs no secret refereeing, and removes the delay in publishing. F1000Research is an open science publishing platform that uses a process of immediate publication (after an internal ‘hygiene’ check) followed by transparent peer review by invited experts, post-publication. All research articles are required to include the underlying source data, and all article types are encouraged, not only large research articles and reviews, but also short articles, negative findings, software articles, case histories, and many other valuable forms of research reporting currently shunned by many journals.

It is only through the combined efforts of hundreds of thousands of researchers in finding and sharing truths – both large and small – that great discoveries are made and science moves on. The internet has paved the way for biomedical research, both positive and negative, to be published quickly and openly for transparent peer review. I am pleased to see that open science is gaining ground and I believe it will eventually become the norm for science publishing.

Faculty of 1000 (F1000) is a workspace for scientists to collect, write & discuss scientific literature, and is powered by a faculty of more than 10,000 leading experts in biology and medicine.

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