A step backwards in neuroscience publishing

In my opinion, publishing in the field of neuroscience has just suffered a loss and taken a step backwards. In January of 2011, BioMed Central launched a new journal called Neural Systems & Circuits. In their inaugural article, the editors wrote:

…new tools and techniques are poised to produce a torrent of new experimental results and theoretical insights. Neural Systems & Circuits will offer a forum for the seamless integration of the resulting body of knowledge. We welcome both theoretical and experimental studies, and everything in between, as long as they relate to circuit or systems-level analysis. In fact, we anticipate an increasing number of these “in between” studies, as the boundaries between theory and experiment blur. Too often, theoretical papers become mathematical exercises for specialists, with little attempt to engage or stimulate experimentalists (who in turn, simply ignore most theory papers). Conversely, many experimental studies read like catalogues, offering little incentive to others wanting to integrate them into a bigger picture or a theory. By offering a mix of papers in a single locus, we aim to foster communication among theorists and experimentalists, and so catalyze cross-pollination.”

The concept sounded fabulous, especially to those of us who work at the intersection of experiments and theory. As someone who works in computational neuroscience and is frequently frustrated by some neuroscientists’ fear of mathematics and the habit of many neuroscience journals to relegate ‘The Math’ to supplementary material, I was particularly excited to read on the home page of the journal:

Neural Systems & Circuits welcomes pure theory papers, and we are happy to have all the math – no matter what the level of sophistication – in the main text.

Here was a neuroscience journal that had vision and was not afraid of math. Over the following year, it also introduced some great ideas for article series such as ‘Invertebrate Circuitry’, and the ‘Opinionated Neuroscientist’. Best of all, the journal was open access, publishing all its articles under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. The field of neuroscience needed this journal. While fields such as physics have open access preprint servers like arXiv and are poised to open up even more research with the latest deal by the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3), much of the research in neuroscience remains locked up in subscription journals where individuals or universities have to pay to read published articles. And more research is being locked up every day. Ask neuroscientists where they want to publish their next article and many will say Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron, or Nature Neuroscience – all subscription journals. Even those like Journal of Neuroscience, who offer what they call an “Open Choice” option, retain copyright to those articles and place restrictions on distribution and reuse. In other words, this publishing option does not constitute true open access, as defined by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Neuroscience has a real access problem. Yes, there exist great open access neuroscience journals, including BMC Neuroscience, Frontiers in Neuroscience, and others. But there are relatively few players, and now there is one less.

I’d be willing to bet (although I’d love to see some real numbers on this, if anyone knows where I can find them) that open access neuroscience journals receive fewer submissions than subscription glamour mags like Neuron and Nature Neuroscience. If I had to guess, a shortage of submissions may have been one of the factors contributing to the closure of Neural Systems & Circuits. In a year and a half, they published only 10 research articles. The message on their home page offers no reason for the closure:

I contacted BioMed Central and the editorial team of Neural Systems & Circuits to inquire about the reasons for the journal’s closure and whether there are plans to publish the journal elsewhere, but have not yet received a response. (If and when I receive a response, I’ll post an update here. (Updated with response 10/16/2012: see below.) Perhaps naively, I also asked whether anything could be done to save the journal. If it is a matter of submissions, I’d be the first to start a grass-roots campaign. I’ll call every neuroscientist I know, if I have to, and ask them to grab that article that’s been waiting for a home and submit it. It’s not just about this one journal. I want to be proud of my field. I want to see that neuroscientists care more about the real impact of their science than the impact factor of the journal they publish in. I want to see that journals like Neural Systems & Circuits can be successful. Because if they can’t, with all the great ideas and policies they represent, then our field is truly in trouble.

Update 10/16/2012: My thanks to Anna Webb, who responded to my email inquiry regarding the reasons for the closure of Neural Systems & Circuits, and agreed to let me post her response here. Below is her email in its entirety:

Dear Erin,

Thank you for your message and for outlining your concerns regarding the closure of Neural Systems & Circuits.

I worked to establish the journal with the Editors-in-Chief, as we felt there was a clear need for a journal that bridged both computational and experimental neuroscience, and that an open access journal would provide the perfect platform for such integration.  Along these lines, we encouraged pure theory papers and the inclusion of all math in the body of the paper, with the aim of setting out clear and precise ways for scientists to utilize computational studies.

From the outset, the journal struggled to attract submissions.  We tried our hardest to find innovative ways to make the journal attractive to the neuroscience community, such as the “Opinionated Neuroscientists” and “Invertebrate Circuitry” series, and through the commissioning of review articles in interesting areas.  Unfortunately, this didn’t result in a sustainable level of submissions, and we took the difficult decision to close the journal earlier this year.

I’m sure you will appreciate that this decision was not taken lightly, and  that we would have been delighted to keep the journal, had there been the prospect of viability, and support from the community.  I am heartened to hear your views on the field and thought you may like to know about some other open access neuroscience journals within our portfolio, such as BMC Neuroscience,  Neural Development, Behavioral and Brain Functions and Molecular Brain.

With best wishes,

Anna Webb

So, the reason for the journal’s closure was indeed a shortage of submissions. Although her email does not say so explicitly, it seems there are no plans to publish the journal elsewhere. The problem, as she puts it, is the need for “support from the community”. Although I am sure some will say I am overstating the importance of the closure of this one journal, I think it does not speak well for the field of neuroscience that this support was lacking. I certainly hope that if BMC, or other publishers, decide to launch journals like Neural Systems & Circuits in the future that the outcome is different. In the meantime, I encourage those of you in the field to consider submitting your next manuscript to one of the journals Anna suggested in her email, or other open access neuroscience journals like those in the Frontiers collection. It is important that these journals receive our support so something like this doesn’t happen again.


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