The Winnower: a “radical” publishing platform that encourages debate. Interview with Josh Nicholson

July 9, 2015, 12:12 pm

Josh Nicholson

Josh Nicholson

I discovered The Winnower at an open access event at Virginia Tech several years ago. Josh Nicholson, a PhD candidate at the time, was on a panel session discussing the merits of OA. He recently earned his degree (cell biology) and is focused on building a publishing platform.

I admire the DIY aspect of his work and the founding principle that all ideas in should be discussed and debated. Our correspondence highlights what he is developing and how it is different from the intuitional repository movement.

Tell me about your academic background and your work at Virginia Tech. 

JN: I finished my BS in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental biology in 2008 at UC Santa Cruz.  While there I worked in a lab for a few years and also wrote for the health and science section for the student run newspaper, City on a Hill Press.  During my time at Virginia Tech, I focused on how abnormal numbers of chromosomes affect cancer cell growth.  Specifically, I found if you introduce an extra chromosome into a cell that cell is more likely to gain/lose chromosomes than a cell with the correct number of chromosomes.  This is important because it shows that aneuploidy is not only a consequence of chromosome mis-segregation but also a cause. A public digest of my PhD work can be found here:

Tell me about The Winnower. How did it come about?

JN: The Winnower was borne out of my frustrations with scholarly publishing.  Frustrated how costly it is (to read and publish), how slow it is, how inefficient it is, and maybe worst of all how closed it is. Really frustrated at almost every aspect of it, which may sound harsh but I think is a quite common feeling among many academics.

 The Winnower stems from the ideas of someone intimately involved with scholarly publishing for many years, former Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ Richard Smith.  I read his book, The Trouble with Medical Journals and knew something had to be done.  Either play the game that scientists play when publishing or try to change it.

In the book Smith describes many of the problems with scholarly publication but what stood out to me most was his experiments with peer review.  He and editors at other major medical journals inserted fake errors into papers and sent them out to reviewers.  The result: most of these major errors went unnoticed.

In his book he offered a solution, that instead of attempting to filter work pre-publication we should sort it post-publication.  The Winnower was founded based around this idea of identifying good/bad work openly via post-publication peer review.  This shift in the publication model has many benefits to the current system and I think it is only a matter of time before most publishers follow it.  Since review happens after publication it means ideas and work can be communicated immediately as opposed to the months/years it takes at traditional publishers.  Since work is guaranteed to be published it encourages authors to be right as opposed to simply “passing peer review.”  What I mean is there is no real need to take shortcuts to get past peer review because peer review is no longer a “you should do these experiments etc etc” before publication.

Publishing and then sorting also positions work in a different way.  Specifically, it eliminates the erroneous notion that publishing means your work is correct, which is a good thing because it puts the onus on other methods of approving/validating work, such as independent support from other labs, (i.e. has the work been independently reproduced?)  And last, post-publication peer means the entire process is transparent from start to finish.  The work is uploaded for all to see and evaluate and so are the reviews.  It makes absolutely no sense why the content of peer reviews are not published, except perhaps to protect the brand of publishers.

What are you hoping to achieve?

JN: The Winnower and other initiatives aimed at improving scholarly communication are necessary because what we have now simply is not working, unless you are of course a major publisher then there are a billion reasons it works fine.  But if we care about science and what is actually right and wrong then things must change.  Publishing must serve scientists, not the other way around.  Indeed, in todays system irreproducibility is rampant, developing countries and developing scientists (students) are left out of scholarly discourse, the public backs much of the research done but they don’t have access to the articles produced, and the list could go on and on.  I am hoping to change scholarly communication at all levels and I think transparency must be at the heart of this.

Tell me about the impact.

JN: We’ve published over 500 pieces of work from undergraduate students to emeritus professors to independent scholars.  Some of the work has been viewed only a handful of times but other pieces have 55,000+ views.  Some of it has been integral in driving change at other publishers and some of it is silly.  Most importantly, is that we’ve given the tools of scholarly publishers to the scholars themselves to use.  Which has had the unexpected effect that different types of content are being produced (conference proceedings, grants, open letters, responses to grants, peer reviews, logistics for organizing symposiums, and more).  Ultimately, we’ve created a platform that allows anyone to get their idea out there and to be afforded the same tools that a traditional publisher offers, that is in my opinion quite impactful.

How do you see the scholarly publishing evolving over the next ten to twenty years?

JN: I think the next generation of scientists who have grown up in the Internet era will have zero patience for the current system and because of that they will seek different outlets that make sense in light of the fact the Internet exists!  We hope students will use The Winnower to publish their work so from the very outset of their scholarly career they are publishing and reviewing openly and that is their norm.

10 years: scholarly publishing will be much more automated than it is now and consequently will be cheaper.

20 years: ideas and results will be communicated iteratively and dynamically, not as a story written in stone.

There is an increasing number of artifacts beyond text (data, visualizations, software tools, code, spreadsheets, multimedia content, etc.) How might these outputs factor into the scholarly conversation and more directly, the tenure and promotion process?

JN: I think all these various outputs you mention are gaining prominence in scholarly communication.  I think that will continue and will become more and more important in how scholars are evaluated and rightly so a lot of work is done in different mediums and outside the confines of the article.  We need to experiment with different approaches of evaluation and part of that is looking beyond one thing (how often you publish and where you publish).  We do need to be careful though as new systems are implemented, new is not necessarily better.

You are very active on Facebook and Twitter – is this part of your open access advocacy?

JN: Many people simply don’t know about The Winnower.  We want to share what we are doing with those that could benefit from it.  Also, many of our interactions on Twitter have helped refine and improve our model.  Plus, we are passionate about what we’re doing so we care about interacting and engaging with the scholarly community.  Some have told us our tweets are kind of “radical.” In today’s scholarly publishing atmosphere I take that as a compliment.

How do you see The Winnower evolving?

JN: I think The Winnower has found a nice niche publishing what is called “grey literature.” (i.e. we publish content that is not traditionally afforded a platform).  By focusing on this niche in the in the short term (<5years) we can build a community that will allows us to experiment with different models in the long term (>5Years).  I found out very early after launch of The Winnower—it’s not enough to build a platform around a new model, you have to convey the value to the community and really incentivize people to use it.

Is there anything librarians can do to help?

JN: YES!!! I would love for libraries to sign up for institutional memberships so that authors (students/professors) at their institutions can publish for free.  However, the ones we’ve reached out to so far have been hesitant for various reasons and usually offer up their repository as a solution to the problems we are trying to fix.

While there are some features shared between a university repository and us we are distinctly different for the following reasons:

  1. We offer DOIs to all content published on The Winnower
  2. All content is automatically typeset on The Winnower
  3. Content published on the winnower is not restricted to one university but is published amongst work from peers at different institutions around the world
  4. Work is published from around the world it is more discoverable
  5. We offer Altmetrics to content
  6.  Our site is much more visually appealing than a typical repository
  7.  Work can be openly reviewed on The Winnower but often times not even commented on in repositories.

This is not to say that repositories have no place, but that we should focus on offering authors choices not restricting them to products developed in house.

Anything else you want to share about The Winnower?

JN: We are a small team with big ambitions.  If you can help or have ideas or suggestions, contact us!

 See also: The Winnower: An Interview with Josh Nicholson (via Phillip Young, Dec 2013)


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