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With the current system in flux, quality remains the highest priority: Interview with Editorial Board Member Johannes Boltze on Scientific Publishing

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Johannes Boltze is an illustrious member of our Editorial Board. A translational scientist with a research focus on development of diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for cerebrovascular ischemia, Dr. Boltze earned his MD in 2008 and Ph.D. degree in 2012 in Neurobiology at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Since 2010, Dr. Boltze has been leading the Department of Cell Therapy at Fraunhofer* Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology in Leipzig. Johannes Boltze is a member of Loop, Frontiers Research Network and an Associate Faculty Member at F1000 Prime. He also worked at the Stroke and Neurovascular Regulation Laboratory led by Professor Michael A. Moskowitz at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA from October 2012 to October 2013.

This interview was conducted by Nana Bit-Avragim, Editor and Open Access Outreach Manager at ScienceOpen.

In October 2014, I attended 15th Fraunhofer Life Science Annual Meeting in Leipzig where I met many inspiring international colleagues, translational scientists, working on emerging technologies in stem cell research and regenerative medicine. The meeting took place at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology (Fraunhofer IZI), a beautiful masterpiece of eco design. There I met Johannes Boltze and conducted a short interview on Open Access and the current state of scientific publishing. Here is the essence of our conversation, which I would like to see as an invitation for the ongoing open discussion.

Q. The current academic publishing system is in the midst of big changes. There are many concerns about the present publishing models as science essentially depends on communication of its results. The internet, emerging digital technologies, social networks and a need to get faster and free access to knowledge are transforming the global scientific community. Tell us a little bit about your interest in Open Access and your opinion on the current state of affairs in scientific publishing.

A. Open Access stands for full availability and unrestricted usability. This is an important point for scientific publications since it makes research output immediately and ultimately available. This helps to increase the visibility of your particular research and fosters scientific discussion.

Immediate access, however, also raises a number of critical points, especially in cases in which results are already publicly available before the review process has been completed. For instance, a biomedical research paper that still has some flaws or is not well thought out, will probably receive a numerous suggestions and comments on what one could do better. While such constructive feedback is valuable in principle, repeatedly publishing incomplete (or even untrusted) results will impact the author’s personal reputation. From the perspective of the journal, quality of individual contributions is something to consider. While Open Access and immediate publication is a good idea per se, the journal will probably wish to find ways by which the quality of individual contributions is guaranteed. This is the only way to stay competitive, given the sheer numbers of newly launched journals penetrating the scientific publication market. It also helps to receive good citation rates.

Another issue comes with the evaluation of research. I think that the Impact Factor is more important in the biomedical field than it is in other fields. For instance, in the field of physics, research results become publicly available first by posting them in arXiv in most cases. Publication in one of the “conventional” journals is a secondary option and a considerable part of the scientific exchange takes part via the arXiv.

Next to the Impact Factor, other “sciencometric” measures such as the H Factor have become established. While all come with certain advantages and disadvantages, such measures are in people’s mind and ultimately contribute to the value of a publication. I think this is something Open Access journals have to face and adapt to. Potentially, the number of citations an individual publication receives is more important than the overall impact factor of the hosting journal since citations rates indicate how well an individual publication is received by the scientific community.

Q: Do you think more transparency and free exchange of data could support academic freedom and foster a new scientific culture?

 A. I think it clearly could. If it comes to the free exchange of data – of course – we have to consider things like intellectual property, responsible use of data, and other aspects all of which are hard to decide about from a general perspective. Nevertheless, I think that the complete exchange of data is very important. You often have conventional papers in which you have some results being presented, but it is hard at times to reconstruct how those have been generated in detail.

Giving the scientific community access to raw data sets and the complete spectrum of methodological protocols would really enhance transparency.

Scientific peers could try to reproduce the results to verify them or to identify potential room for improvement. I think this may accelerate the acquisition of knowledge, particularly in translational research areas. Moreover, it would also help to swiftly spread important information and breakthrough news throughout the community to implement it much faster.

I think most of my colleagues, especially at the Fraunhofer society, are very supportive of Open Access journals and Open Access approaches, as long as the quality is assured.

Q: How to steer an academic career? What would be your advice for early career researchers to navigate the science publishing landscape in the age of Open Science and Open Access.

A. I think the key point is to present high-quality work. For young scientists, it’s really important to publish with a good Impact Factor and to have a strong publication track record as this is the current mind set in most fields. Nevertheless, Open Access journals are coming into the field in increasing numbers, with many featuring high quality standards. So, I think Open Access provides you with an option to communicate your results earlier and with higher visibility. But aside from that, I think you still have to be aware of the “conventional” standards for measuring the impact of a particular publication. Finding a way of combining both would be of significant value to biomedical science.

One should also keep in mind that science originally developed by the falsification of hypotheses – and only the best hypotheses could survive the approach. Nowadays, scientific results are mainly presented as success stories, presenting positive results and approved hypotheses. That produces a certain pressure to have such results, and fosters the neglect of neutral or negative results.

An Open Access environment may be a very valuable database for such results which are often rejected by more conventional journals, but nevertheless are invaluable for the thorough progress in a given field.

Also, ScienceOpen could be used for publishing not only original results, but also well-thought out theories, suggestions, and hypotheses.

So, having a forum where you could present your ideas and concepts to a broad range of colleagues and a wide spectrum of experts would probably help to develop them further, and would represent a gain of knowledge apart from publishing original results.

* The Fraunhofer Society is Europe’s largest applied science organization, includes more than 60 research institutes in Germany and a large number of centres and representative offices in the USA, Asia and the Middle East with more than 23k employees (scientists and engineers), and an annual research budget of more than two billion Euro.

The Leipzig-based Fraunhofer IZI is a part of the Fraunhofer Life Science Branch working on development of novel diagnostic and therapeutic technologies for oncology, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases as well as regenerative medicine approaches for a broad variety of diseases.