A Road to Living Documents?

A few weeks ago I posted an item arguing that the scientific paper is an outdated concept and the whole business of research publishing should change to reflect more accurately how science is actually done. I’d argued previously that

the future for many fields will be defined not in terms of “papers” which purport to represent “final” research outcomes, but by living documents continuously updated in response to open scrutiny by the community of researchers. I’ve long argued that the modern academic publishing industry is not facilitating but hindering the communication of research. The arXiv has already made academic journals virtually redundant in many of branches of  physics and astronomy; other disciplines will inevitably follow.

I thought I would explain how the Open Journal of Astrophysics represents a small move in the direction of the “living document” idea.

Recently the author of a paper we published in 2019 contacted me to explain that readers had pointed some errors in that publication and he wished to amend it to correct the mistakes, which were typographical in nature but did propagate through a number of equations though they did not affect the main results. We had dealt with one post-publication amendment in the past and we handled this one in the same way:

  1. The author sent us a new version containing the proposed revisions;
  2. The Editor checked that they were reasonable (i.e. minor and without any significant changes to the scientific content);
  3. After getting the green light the author placed a revised version on arXiv with a comment explanation the revisions (in this case v3);
  4. We changed our overlay to point at the new version.

Here is the new overlay updated this morning.

You will see that there is a note on the overlay after the abstract. There is also a comment alongside the arXiv submission and another in the acknowledgements section of the revised paper. Owing to the separation between the overlay and the arXiv it is not necessary to change the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) or any of the article metadata.

This is a lot easier than the old-fashioned method of publishing an erratum. It may not represent the idea of a living document exactly, but it does demonstrate a way of feeding back to the publication after the “open scrutiny by the community of researchers” I referred to in my quote above.

It also demonstrates that peer review, however thorough, is never perfect and having wider scrutiny can find errors a referee might not.

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3 Responses to “A Road to Living Documents?”

  1. Roxana Dior Says:

    Is this the same approach as the Living Reviews in Relativity, https://www.springer.com/journal/41114?

    • telescoper Says:

      Not quite because you have to pay an APC to publish there, and they’re review articles rather than original research.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m tending toward the opposite direction, actually. I think the slowness of moving away from over-priced paper journals is due not only to the imprimatur issue but also to the (de)centralisation issue. The website of an online-only journal may go offline permanently for a variety of reasons: death or retirement or sacking of its editor, bankruptcy or viral attack or fire at its ISP, etc. Or your paper might be removed from its website because you are deemed to be the wrong sort of person (Jews in Nazi Germany, etc). Then it is possible for your paper to be unpublished. That is what must be prevented.

    What we want, then, is exactly the same system as before the internet, but with university and faculty libraries comprising giant hard disc drives instead of shelves, monthly mailouts of new papers by email rather than paper mail, and the journal to retain a free online version for backup.

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