The Cerutti Mastodon paper might be a significant turning point. It is for me, at least. Nature is the nec plus ultra of academic publishing. The acceptance rate hovers around 8% and only papers and letters “of outstanding scientific importance” are published. Which makes me wonder how the Mastodon paper got into Nature.
Had it been sent to me for review, I would have written a (very) slightly expanded and more technical version of my previous post on the subject. I would have recommended that it be sent back to the authors for major revision. I might have suggested that, stripped of its more speculative archaeological interpretations, it might be very interesting for Quaternary International, or perhaps for PLoS One. I would have pointed out that although a good, informative, and significant paleontology paper, it isn’t, in its current state, an archaeology paper.
Had it been submitted to the journal I edit, I wouldn’t have sent it out for review. I would have suggested that the authors submit it elsewhere as a paleontology paper, or that they significantly improve the quality of the archaeological evidence, or, perhaps that they post it online, as is, on a blog, on Reddit, on their institution’s website, or wherever, and ask peers to review and discuss it there.
This is of course something that any of us can do at any time with any of our work, and this paper makes me wonder why we don’t do this more often. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that we don’t need journals. This Cerutti Mastodon paper drives home the point spectacularly. Any scholar, or group of scholars can post (publish) something and let other scholars know that they have posted it (disseminate). Any scholar can ask a colleague to coordinate independent peer review of a paper before, after, or while it is being posted.
Peer review serves two main purposes. It serves to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of a contribution (and hopefully to fix the weaknesses), and it helps us keep track of the value of contributions for things like hiring, tenure and promotion. For a while, it served the additional useful purpose of deciding what contributions should get space in the limited number of journal pages published every year.
As the Cerutti paper shows, being published in Nature is no longer a mark of quality or significance for a paper. It is a political achievement and a publicity coup. Being published anywhere, whether in Nature or on a personal blog, is merely the starting point of an open discussion on the value of a contribution. Even some tweets constitute significant contributions to knowledge and should be rated as such.
That assessment by peers will help determine both how useful a paper is for moving a discipline forward and answering its fundamental questions, and to help us identify who should be hired or promoted into one of the very limited number of academic positions available.
I don’t think I am quite ready yet to completely stop contributing to traditional journals (I edit one and serve on the editorial board of another), but I will increasingly try to organize peer review and dissemination of my own stuff. I might start a section of peer reviewed papers on this blog, for example. I might ask my University Library to hold permanent copies of these contributions. And if anyone out there would like me to organize independent peer review, dissemination and curation of a contribution they have posted, or are planning to post on a blog, or one of their tweets or whatever, let me know. I’ll be happy to help.