Disrupting the Conventional Scholarly Publication Process

The posts this week are from guest author Brent Thoma  who is describing the work of the MedEdLIFE group. This post was originally published on Brent’s blog and is reproduced for the ICE blog – Jonathan (@sherbino)

By Brent Thoma (@Brent_Thoma)

This week the MedEdLIFE Research Collaborative submitted our first paper, Educational Scholarship in the Digital Age: A Scoping Review and Analysis of Scholarly Products [1], to the new open peer review, open-access journal, The Winnower. If you check out their website you will note that they have quite a few opinion pieces and some research papers posted. You may wonder why a research group like ours, which has had success publishing in recognized, PubMed-indexed journals, would go this route. This decision resulted largely from my growing disenfranchisement with the traditional peer review process. I find it slow, expensive, and lacking dialogue – problems which often result in important scholarship going unpublished. However, rather than focusing on criticizing peer review (that has been done well elsewhere), I would like to discuss the benefits of using The Winnower as an alternative to the traditional process.

The Winnower

It is fast and open access

In contrast to the slow, closed-door process of traditional peer review, The Winnower is as quick as you want it to be. After submission, articles are immediately available to read during the peer review process. If you want your paper online for dissemination today, it can happen! This does not mean that a paper has been officially accepted for publication prior to peer review. Rather, the article is openly available during the review process. This allows the article to begin contributing to the scholarly dialogue on a topic instantaneously, while preserving the benefits of peer review. (We do believe peer review is beneficial – our research group has even published on using peer review for blogs! [2]). Immediately after submission  an article can be shared with (and referenced by) others in the field.  Simultaneous with this process the article is being peer reviewed. (We received our first review in <48 hours). Once reviewed and all issues from the review process are addressed, the article is officially published.

It leads to a helpful dialogue

All of the reviews on The Winnower are as open and accessible as the articles. As soon as a review is submitted, it can be seen by the authors and everyone else viewing the article. Because of the open nature of this review process, reviewers need to maintain a high standard (their name is attached to it!) and trend towards more constructive (rather than negative) feedback. (However, evidence for this assumption is lacking). A side benefit of this transparency is that the author(s) is able to respond directly to reviews and improve the clarity of their paper in an iterative fashion. Additionally, the readers of the paper benefit from being able to see reviews that assist in the interpretation of the work. The submitted peer reviews are linked to the formal publication, and new reviews can still be provided post-publication.

It allows for free and accessible publication

While it is likely that a significant amount of work rejected by the traditional publication and peer review process is of poor quality, it is equally likely that some of it is rejected due to a perceived lack of significance or because its authors did not have the time/funds/energy to persevere. I do not think the place for this work is the garbage can. Publication through The Winnower’s process can provide the needed peer review to identify the problems with a paper in a transparent way, while at the same time allowing it to be disseminated and built upon. The scientific community, rather than a small number of editors/reviewers, is given the opportunity to determine its scholarly importance.

The Winnower quote

I don’t need a journal to disseminate my work

Traditionally a researcher could not disseminate their work without the help of a journal. Fortunately, with the rise of social media that is no longer the case. In fact, having been sent the number of downloads that my recent publications have received (generally ~150-250 – see my Google Scholar profile here), I am confident that nearly every one of my featured blog posts on Academic Life in Emergency Medicine and BoringEM have been read more times than the articles that I have published in peer-reviewed journals. While page views are not equivalent to downloads, our first article on the Winnower was viewed >600 times prior to publication.

The name of the journal is becoming less important

The impact of an academic’s work has been traditionally judged based on the journals that they have published in. This no longer needs to be the case. Altmetrics [3] allow the dissemination of individual articles to be tracked. In the future I believe this will become a better measure of the impact of an article than the journal that it has been published in, making the name in the masthead less important than the work that it contains. Because the academic community is not quite ready to embrace this change, I continue publishing in traditional journals. However, I am also tracking the altmetrics of my articles. I think you should be too.


It may take a few years, but I suspect that frustrations with the traditional peer review process, the possibility of self-dissemination, the feasibility of free, open-access review/publication via platforms like The Winnower, and the growing accessibility of article level metrics will lead to the disruption of scholarly publication. For the early adopters out there, I think The Winnower is worth a try. If you are intrigued I would ask you to do the following: (1) support our experiment with The Winnower by reviewing our latest paper, Educational Scholarship in the Digital Age: A Scoping Review and Analysis of Scholarly Products, and (2) experiment with The Winnower yourself by dusting off one of those papers rotting on your hard drive and submitting it.


I would like to thank Teresa Chan (@TChanMD) for providing a review of an earlier version of this post.

Conflict of Interest Declaration

I have no conflicts of interest to disclose in regard to the topics discussed in this blog post.


  1. Thoma B, Chan T, Benitez J & Lin M. (2014). Educational Scholarship in the Digital Age: A Scoping Review and Analysis of Scholarly Products. The Winnower. DOI: 10.15200/winn.141827.77297
  2. Thoma, B., Chan, T., Desouza, N., & Lin, M. (2014). Implementing peer review at an emergency medicine blog: bridging the gap between educators and clinical experts. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, 16(0), 1-4. DOI:10.2310/8000.2014.141393
  3. Barbaro A, Gentili D, & Rebuffi C. (2014). Altmetrics as new indicators of scientific impact. Journal of the European Association for Health Information and Libraries, 10(1), 3-6.

Both images courtesy of The Winnower.