Letter from the Executive Director, May 2023
One of the distinguishing characteristics of scholarly communications is trust. Trust takes many forms in our community when it applies to the process of content creation and dissemination. It appears in the writing process through citations, which buttress an argument and build on the record of science. The process of peer reviewing and vetting content before it is published is also a pillar upon which trust is built. Sharing data as openly as possible has become another important trend that increases the verifiability of claims and conclusions. Corrections and retractions build and maintain trust, as well.
NISO has long been involved in the standards that support these mechanisms of trust building in content dissemination. In fact, one of the purposes of standards agreement is encouraging trust among trading partners. Standards support consistency of behavior, fostering confidence in how items are created and delivered and providing assurance that they will be interoperable. Their adoption also signals to the end user that products or outputs have gone through consistent processes in their creation and are thus reliable. This principle works the same in manufacturing as it does in the content creation and distribution process. Understanding the provenance of a book or article and the rigor of the review it’s gone through, or knowing if there have been changes, corrections, or retractions, can all be valuable in assessing the content’s value.
Three projects that are directly related to this are making their way through the standards process at NISO. The first is a taxonomy of peer review terminology, under development as a US national standard. If readers are going to rely on the peer review process as a signal of quality, it is helpful to have consistency in what that means—or more specifically, in the definitions and characteristics of various different types of peer review—across a range of publishers. This work was first undertaken by the STM Association and brought forward within NISO in 2021. The project is entering its final stages, with a recent ballot by the NISO membership having received significant support. The committee is working to resolve some final comments from the approval balloting process, but it is anticipated that the project will wrap up in the coming weeks. Consistent application of the terminology will help users.
Another project focused on consistent terminology is updating the Journal Article Versions terminology. This Recommended Practice was initially approved back in 2008. Since then, the ecosystem of content distribution has changed significantly, with the growth of preprint repositories and other places where papers are posted online. Additionally, new approaches to content review and publication have necessitated a reconsideration of this vocabulary. The working group for this project formed in early 2021 and is making progress toward a public draft, which will be forthcoming soon. Once completed, this project will provide the community of readers with a more robust understanding of the types of versions they may encounter, as well as having a better understanding of the publication process a version went through.
Finally, the issue of retractions is an important feature of publication of trustworthy results. No process is ever going to be perfect, as we’re all fallible. It would be wrong to criticize a process that occasionally generates an erroneous output. The key feature is how the system reacts to mistakes or errors and what is done to correct them. Scholarly publishing has traditionally had robust approaches to addressing mistakes through the process of retractions. A lot of work has been done by organizations such as COPE to set forth guidelines for ethical publishing practices. Specific guidelines have been created for the editorial process, for identifying and flagging materials that should be retracted or corrected, and for addressing expressions of concern. After the editorial process is completed, there should also be consistent practice about how those corrections, retractions, or expressions of concern are communicated to the public. This process is the focus of the NISO CREC project, which is ongoing. Launched as an output of the NISO Plus 2021 conference, this effort is making progress toward a draft for public comment that should be available later this year.
With these three projects, NISO is helping to build a network of trust in understanding the status of the materials one might encounter in the discovery process. Obviously, it will be up to the reader to judge what value they place in the content, but clarity and consistency across the community will help to guide the reader in understanding more about the items they are reading. As our society has generally become more skeptical and leery of accepting any claims at face value, the investments the scholarly communications community make in review and retractions are important for maintaining trust and reliability.
Executive Director, NISO