“In some respects, the Wikipedia of science”

Expert communities consider the online series Living Reviews as their first port of call for information

November 16, 2013

Bernard Schutz, Director of the MPI for Gravitational Physics and initiator of the Living Reviews series of open access journals explains his recipe for success and describes the obstacles still to be overcome.

Mr Schutz, Living Reviews is seen as a pioneering open access project. What is special about it?

Review journals are based on the principle of providing articles containing a scientific overview of a particular specialised field. A huge amount of work goes into such articles. Once printed on paper, they age very quickly – so, in the late 1990s, I came up with the idea of the Living Reviews, which would only be published online and could therefore be updated as “living articles” when new information becomes available.

The articles can be used freely, they incorporate multimedia elements – in summary, it all sounds a bit like Wikipedia...

That’s an interesting point. One thing should be made clear: we are older than Wikipedia; the first contributions to Living Reviews in Relativity were published in 1998. And there are a few crucial differences: whereas all users can contribute to Wikipedia articles, this is not the case with Living Reviews. The authors are selected and there is a strict peer review process – this guarantees quality. What’s more, our contributions are often over 100 pages long and also contain, of course, animated sequences, graphics and images. From the user’s perspective, however, the Living Reviews and Wikipedia have certain things in common: Whereas people obtain information about everyday life through Wikipedia, we have become the first port of call for members of our expert community who are looking for information. So Living Reviews can be referred to in some respects as the Wikipedia of science – however, the standards are higher, because the contributions are intended as binding reference sources.

How can you quantify its success?

The Living Reviews series currently has five titles – and the figures show that the corresponding communities are accessing the websites in growing numbers. The numbers of downloads are increasing; in the case of Living Reviews in Relativity, each of the over 100 articles is downloaded once every day. When we consider that a global community of around 2000 researchers is involved here, this is considerable. In addition, the journal has a very high impact factor in the citation analysis, is among the top references in its field and is one of the top 50 of 8,000 analysed journals worldwide. Living Reviews in Solar Physics, which is in the top 100, enjoys a similar degree of success. The high quality is not only reflected in these statistics, however, it is also evident from the demand. And our sister journals enjoy a high level of acceptance in this regard, too.

How do you safeguard this quality?

The composition of the editorial board, which includes outstanding researcher colleagues from all over the world, is crucial. They use their excellent networks to find authors for the individual specialist areas. These are then invited to contribute – and because the former are famous, their invitation is considered as an acknowledgement and incentive to write an article. This is also a basis for the high level of commitment, with which the texts are written and updated by the authors. Moreover, the referees also play an important role and draw attention to possible biases or works that the authors may have overlooked.

How is such a project funded?

With open access, the author usually pays for his or her publication and it is financed in this way. But because our series does not involve the presentation of brand new results but survey information, we cannot expect the authors to pay. We therefore rely on funding and are very grateful for the very crucial support we receive from the Max Planck Society – from its central resources and from the Max Planck Digital Library. However, the institutes that hold the editorships also contribute. In the case of Living Reviews in Relativity, the institute in question is my own and for Living Reviews in Solar Physics it is the MPI for Solar System Research. The other three titles belong to the same “brand”, but are funded by external partners. The author, referees and editorial board members do not receive any payment for their work.

What are the future plans for the series?

The Living Reviews in Computational Astrophysics, which is edited by the MPI for Astrophysics, will be published this year. And we are in discussion with other research organisations because there is a lot of interest in other titles. We provide support in the establishment process and offer the brand name free of charge. However, the partners must obtain stable funding to operate the title. That is not always easy, but I am convinced that the Living Reviews will continue to grow because it is a good concept – and open access in general is gaining ground.

How do you assess this progress?

A lot has happened since 2003, when we adopted the Berlin Declaration. Open access is now accepted as a model. We and many other journals have shown that open access and quality can go hand in hand. Around ten percent of the scientific literature is now available directly through open access journals. I think that this percentage will increase significantly in the next decade. It is important that research organisations find solutions for covering publication costs for the author. This change in model from the subscription to publication cost system is a challenge, because it mainly affects the business model of the publishers. But I fail to see any alternative, as the subscription system isn’t suited to the Internet. And if the publishers will not contribute, their traditional journals run the risk of being published without contributions from the next generation of scientists.

Thank you for this interview!

Interview: Jens Eschert

Go to Editor View