Now that the last of the Zhuchangtyrannus stuff is behind me, it’s worth returning to an issue that has in a way affected every aspect of the blogging and media side of things – the fact that what is actually available right now is an uncorrected proof. For those who don’t know, the basic procedure of getting a scientific paper published is that you submit your work to a journal, this goes for review, if it’s seemed suitable the reviews come back to you to make corrections based on them, this is returned to the journal editor and if deemed satisfactory are turned into a ‘proof’ version (i.e. formatted for publication), these come back to you to check and make final tweaks and then go back to the journal for final publication.
In the old days (and by this I mean as little and 5 or so years ago) unless you sent round copies to your colleagues, in general no one would see the paper until it was actually published – physically in paper form in a journal. The gap between returning your proofs and publication was generally weeks and was often months and occasionally years. As such journals soon realised that they were missing out on citations and credit for papers that were basically done and could be viewed as published and with the digital world in full flow, they could put these up in advance.
I see this as generally a good thing. It keeps things moving along and cuts down on the waiting time on work to appear and especially work that everyone already knows about and wants to cite but can’t because the journal is slow. However, many journals have now gone a step further and started putting up the proofs themselves. This is a very bad thing.
First off the more frivolous reasons, it’s annoying. I want the final version, not some pre-version. Journals still charge for these, so there’s a risk you could end up forking out twice for what is essentially the same paper. Similarly, the authors may have reasons for this not appearing before the final version for whatever reason and there’s generally no opt-out. It also makes doing media work hard (like here for me) because the paper kinda is published and kinda isn’t. It’s also a time waster – I fielded a number of e-mails from people asking for apparently ‘missing’ data in the paper which was absent only because of a formatting error, and it was, frankly, a pain as I had to keep trotting out the same reply to lots of people to give them what they wanted and suggest that I wasn’t a complete fool and did put it in there honestly.
More seriously there are taxonomic issues. I think the world’s taxonomists are just ignoring this issue from a practical point of view (which is probably for the best) but I doubt they’re happy. Zhuchengtyrannus is, right now, technically not properly published. The ICZN still require paper copies of papers to make names valid (see the PLoS One discussions of recent years). While I didn’t publish in an online only open-source journal, so far there are no paper copies of this article in libraries so they name doesn’t count. This is stupid and of course genuinely risks that some nefarious person will one day attempt to gazump a real piece of research by simply copying the diagnosis and specimen number, and self publishing a couple of pages of notes and stick them in a few locations and try to steal the name. No one wants this and it does offer unnecessary confusion.
Finally there is the real issue here. Proofs are not really, real. They can be subject to change and these can be profound. I really don’t know of anyone who hasn’t spotted a mistake in a paper they have published and most people would probably tell you there’s an error in most paper they’ve published one way or the other. It can be a simple as a missing comma, a spelling mistake or a mis-citation (I meant Smith et al. 1998 not 1999). I know of people who have spelled major things wrong (including the word ‘Cretaceous’ in the title once). Proofs are your last chance to catch these things and of course add in last minute changes (as I have to do with this one for example). Recently a co-author spotted we had a ‘not’ missing from a sentence in a paper which of course rather changed the meaning of the paragraph at hand!
While some of these (minor and major) will slip through, the vast majority won’t. That’s pretty much the point of the proofs. But if the proofs are already out there, people will see them and might think they are intended. They won’t know you went back and added in a ‘not’: Hey, Smith et al. said this IS true! Surely it’s not true!!!
Now that these are free game and not just seen by authors and editors the cat gets out of the bag in the wrong way. People will read them and cite them. But they will be reading and even citing things you might not officially have said. In the medium and long term the only record will be the real, actual, paper. A colleague told me that some time ago this almost happened to him, someone basically published a paper and in it, refereed to my colleague’s in press work (at the time a proof) and pointed out a significant anomaly in there. In the meantime, said colleague had seen it himself and fixed it. So you now have the bizarre situation that person A has a paper pointing out an error in a paper by person B. Only that error is not in the paper, and actually both papers agree on the point absolutely. This means that if you read both, A looks like a fool and if you only read A’s paper then you think B is. The situation was saved because A was polite and sensible enough to check before he went ahead.
Even so, it seems to me only a matter of time before some major eruption occurs because of these. Someone will get a major roasting in the literature for something they never officially said, or someone will leap on a point to prove their case only to see that data point vanish when the paper is properly published, or someone will be very unscrupulous with a new name or something similar. As such, I utterly hate advanced proofs and I’d love to see them return to whence the came.