Do open discussion journals provide a service to the scientific community?

The open “discussion” journals favored by the European Geophysical Union (EGU), including Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions (ACPD), may be doing the scientific community a disservice.

For those not initiated into the ways of these journals, scientists submit manuscripts to Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions where they are published without peer review, and then later if successfully peer reviewed, a modified version appears in the regular journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP).

This produces at least two versions of every paper: a non-peer-reviewed draft and and a final peer-reviewed version. The continued circulation of the non-peer-reviewed draft can act as a kind of pollution of the scientific literature, as it is often unclear to the uninitiated that papers published in EGU “Discussions” journals are not peer reviewed.

One of the key contributions of the editorial and peer-review process provided by journals is the vetting of the scientific content both for importance and quality. There is way too much stuff being written to read everything, and the editorial process at a high-quality journal is supposed to help provide a filter and direct scientists to important, high-quality, papers.

It is a fiction to believe that busy scientists have the time to review a panoply of manuscripts that they are not specifically tasked with reviewing. Journal editors know how hard it often is to obtain thorough reviews of submitted manuscripts.

There may be other models that would allow volunteer reviewing without expanding the reservoir of grey literature. For example, journals could list titles of papers sent out to review, and volunteer would-be reviewers could contact the journal and ask to be made a reviewer.

By publishing papers that are not peer reviewed, EGU journals such as ACPD are contributing to the noise of science, when the role of the editorial process should be to help readers find the rare nuggets of important high quality signal amid the abundance of excess noise.

[Note: This post was prompted by Andy Revkin’s piece of DotEarth: http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/dotearth/2015/07/23/whiplash-warning-when-climate-science-is-publicized-before-peer-review-and-publication/ ]