A System in Turmoil

Nikhita Nanduri reflects on Professor Misha Angrist's visit with the 2022 Huang Fellows

Before this summer, I didn’t associate the word dramatic with science publishing. Critical? Absolutely. Complex? Of course. But I didn’t realize that the publishing world was one filled with controversy, outrage, and many, many lawsuits.

It was a sentiment emphasized by our speaker, Dr. Misha Angrist, Senior Fellow at Science and Society. He describes science publishing as one in “flux,” a system full of “paywalls, predators, preprints, and pirates.”

The current landscape has left many frustrated. When scientists submit to a journal, they are met with either an immediate desk rejection or a referral for peer review. After reviewers provide comments and/or tear the article to pieces, you can revise and resubmit for review. The process continues until you pass review and get your article in the journal.

“Publishing, it seems, has become a test of resilience”

Misha Angrist Speaking Screenshot

Publishing, it seems, has become a test of resilience. How many journals can you afford to go to? How many rejections can you endure before seeing your work released to the world? It’s also a matter of sheer luck. Did you catch the editor on a good or bad day? Can your anonymous reviewers appreciate the research that took years to collect or do they dismiss it entirely?

That process has obvious flaws. But the system is also broken for those trying to access journal articles.

At Duke, we’re fortunate enough to find virtually any article we want. And Dr. Angrist recognized that privilege. “With a few clicks,” he told us, “I can get access to the entire corpus of scientific literature in history.” But that’s not the case for many smaller institutions, especially those in developing countries. Monopolistic pricing within the industry results in exorbitant paywalls or subscription fees. These barriers limit journal access, stymie research, and become an additional roadblock for scientists already stretched thin for resources.

Evidently, something needs to change to improve both the process of publishing and accessing publications. We explored several emerging responses to these issues- some more legal than others.

Open-access journals have grown in popularity, with Europe moving over to universal open-access for research funded by public grants. Dr. Angrist challenged us to wonder if publishing research could model the early 2000s process of publishing the human genome. Just as genetic data was made free to the public via GenBank, open-access journals strive to make research as accessible as possible. But the nature of large-scale publishing has drawbacks. It’s hard to scrutinize all of the articles being released; there is simply too much information to examine everything closely. Some open-access journals are associated with a lack of credibility and vary widely in quality.

There are also pre-prints, which enable scientists to submit papers before peer-review. Pre-print popularity experienced a meteoric rise after COVID, when the pace of publishing needed to keep up with rapid changes and research developments. But releasing articles as fast as possible- without review-means that not every pre-print is high quality. There’s been a substantial increase in the number of fraudulent studies published as pre-prints, highlighting a tradeoff between rapid communication and accurate information.

And then there’s piracy. Sci-Hub, a website that publishes copyrighted information, has been the target of countless lawsuits and controversies. The founder’s vision is to provide free access to anyone who wants to read scientific articles. Though the website is technically illegal, it’s a powerful testament to the rampant frustration with science publishing. People are willing to break the law- consistently- to get access to information they need.

The nature of science publishing changes and evolves, just like science itself. But during Dr. Angrist’s talk, I was constantly reminded that no one ‘does science’ alone. Everything you do depends on the work of countless other researchers. Collaboration and discovery cannot be separated from one another- they are inexorably linked.

It’s high time that science publishing reflects that value, too.

“I was constantly reminded that no one ‘does science’ alone.”

Nikhita Nanduri, Huang Fellow ’25

Nikhita NanduriNikhita is a rising sophomore from Charlotte, pursuing a major in Neuroscience and a minor in computer science on the pre-med track.