They're called "peer reviewers"

By Razib Khan | August 30, 2011 12:06 am

George Monbiot’s piece, Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist, is making the rounds. This paragraph jumped out at me:

Murdoch pays his journalists and editors, and his companies generate much of the content they use. But the academic publishers get their articles, their peer reviewing (vetting by other researchers) and even much of their editing for free. The material they publish was commissioned and funded not by them but by us, through government research grants and academic stipends. But to see it, we must pay again, and through the nose

It reminded me of this scene from the South Park episode Crack Baby Athletic Association (click):

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  • Justin Giancola

    Glad to see someone else saw the greatness of this episode.

  • Dave

    Maybe someone who knows a little about the process can explain this to me. I’ve heard a lot of barking about this.

    Isn’t there some kind of rule that requires the results of any tax funded research to be available to everyone? Don’t the authors get to decide where the content gets published? Are they unable to submit for peer review without the aid of the publishers? If so, why hasn’t academia ripped this process out of their hands yet? Is there some kind of massive utility in having these private companies locking up the results of our tax funded work?

    It just doesn’t seem to make sense, so I’m sure I’m missing something.

  • http://www.jamesgraham.bz James Graham

    As someone with a business background I can understand and even sympathize with companies that incur significant costs to produce journals being asked to give away their products free of charge.

    The solution might be to eliminate paper journals entirely. Eliminating the cost of printing and limiting production to on-line would reduce costs by a very significant percentage.

    The cost might be so low — approaching nominal — that the entire enterprise might be performed by volunteers.

    Journals (as I understand it) already rely on unpaid volunteers in the form of peer reviewers who perform the bulk of the intellectually demanding work. The remainder of the effort involved in assembling and publishing an on-line journal is relatively simple and could conceivably also be performed by unpaid volunteers.

    This idea might shift responsibility of journal publication from commercial companies to universities and other not-for-profit organizations. That is not something that pleases my Republican psyche but, on the other hand, I’ve been blocked by too many pay walls to care.

  • Clark

    I think part of the problem is just that you have a changeover of business plans. People don’t really want to embrace the technology. Everyones business model (even the models of purportedly not for profit organizations) was hinged upon limited sales to a limited number of libraries of physical media. Now as we’ve computerized things and those costs no longer make sense people are clinging irrationally to their old models.

    Seriously look at even the purportedly not for profit article repositories like JSTOR (which I think is run by MIT as a non-profit). The cost bears no resemblance to the costs of servers or even the cost of scanning older (pre-90’s) articles. Rather it’s just following the traditional university library model.

  • red_panda

    @ Dave – I can answer this from an astronomy point of view. To continue to receive grants we must publish in an officially recognised, peer-reviewed journal. However, everyone *additionally* publishes on the arXiv. My latest paper was submitted to a journal about 6 weeks ago. It was assigned to a volunteer referee, who reviewed it for free, and from my experience, it probably took around 20 hours. Once it had been accepted by the referee I put it on the arXiv and it was publicly available, at no cost to me or the reader, by 4pm that day. The journal will probably officially publish my paper in another 6 to 8 weeks, will charge several hundred dollars for the privilege, and will charge people to read it. Most people will not read it through them – they will go through the arXiv.

    The only reason I see that the traditional journals still exist is that grant agencies require an outside party for the peer reviewing part. Pretty much no-one reads the paper versions anymore, but we still print and pay for them. Anyone can post on the arXiv (within reason – you have to have a known poster to vouch for you before you can post for the first time) but nothing has to be refereed. If there was an option to pay a reasonable fee to have arXiv publications reviewed then I for one would jump on it.

  • Ian

    @James Graham

    Isn’t there some kind of rule that requires the results of any tax funded research to be available to everyone?
    Sadly no, although some funding agencies are moving in that direction.

    Don’t the authors get to decide where the content gets published?
    Yes, in theory. But not really in practice. When it comes to tenure and promotions decisions, when it comes to finding jobs, where you publish matters, the rank and reputation of the journal. So everyone who has a shot at getting a paper in Nature or Science or Cell feels pressured to shoot for it, because it can affect their professional career trajectories.

    Secondly, open access journals tend to charge substantial up-front fees. Since you only have a finite amount of money to do a variety of things, this can pose a major barrier to some people.

    Are they unable to submit for peer review without the aid of the publishers?
    There’s no central body that does peer review. A journal editor has the job of finding people to do serve as (unpaid) peer reviewers. Putting it in the hands of a third party, who has no real stake in whether the paper gets published or not makes the process independent of the author, which gives the peer review process much of its integrity. Not foolproof. But the more removed the process is from the author, the better.

    So this is why the journals are important. The higher the reputation of the journal, the bigger the pool of manuscripts they have to choose from. The bigger the pool, the less important any one manuscript is to the journal.

    If so, why hasn’t academia ripped this process out of their hands yet? Is there some kind of massive utility in having these private companies locking up the results of our tax funded work?

    To begin with, “academia” is an amorphous entity. Individual universities could take charge of the process of peer review, but they would have a vested interest in promoting their own research. Scholarly societies used to publish most journals, but most that do lose money on the process – the publication of the journals is subsidised by the members of the society. As long as access to journals was a scarce commodity, this made sense – you pay extra for the convenience of not having to walk over to the library and photocopy articles. With online publishing, this advantage is lost – societies lose members because access to their most valuable product (the journal) is no longer scarce. Fewer members drives up the price of membership, which is a further drag on membership. As a result of this, professional societies have sold their journals to academic publishers. And the publishers have the clout to demand far higher fees than the professional societies did.

    The best way to undercut this is probably at the funding end. Funding agencies can require that copies of publications be deposited in some sort of a publicly available archive. Universities can do the same thing. Publishers can’t force you to sign away rights that you don’t own. (You can get a copy of any article published by a USDA Forest Service employee from their website.)

  • http://www.jamesgraham.bz James Graham

    @ Ian

    Thanks, but you were not responding me.

    Dave, perhaps?

  • Ian

    Oops. Sorry about that. :)

  • miko

    The NIH requires that publicly funded research be deposited in PubMed Central upon acceptance. I don’t know if it’s enforced.

    http://publicaccess.nih.gov/

    Academic publishing is a disaster. But academics are incapable of working together to solve problems, just like everyone else.

  • red_panda

    @ miko
    “Academic publishing is a disaster. But academics are incapable of working together to solve problems, just like everyone else.”
    Bollocks. We have the arXiv – set up and run by academics. We unfortunately don’t have the time or manpower to expand it. It’s not that we can’t solve problems, it’s that we’re constantly being asked to do everything for free on our own time and we have the same 24 hours as everyone else. Journals could be made open access but the people with the power to do that don’t want to.

  • Clark

    Miko: Academic publishing is a disaster. But academics are incapable of working together to solve problems, just like everyone else.

    And yet physicists somehow managed to do it long ago…

  • http://dienekes.blogspot.com Dienekes

    The system works fine for all the players: journals profit, academics get careers, news outlets get stories for their Sci section. Who cares that the hoi polloi are excluded from the process?

    I find the hypocrisy of the scientific community in certain fields astounding. They cry and cry about the public’s rejection of evolution or its scientific illiteracy, and then go ahead and hide their research in closed-access journals where the public can’t read it.

    There really is no hope that the players in the system will reform it willingly. Scientists must be coerced by government to make their work publicly available. If the public pays for it, the public has a right to read it, so that they know what they pay for.

  • miko

    Will everyone untwist their panties if I say “Academics — except the 1.5% of tall, clever, well-adjusted academics who use arXiv — are incapable…”?

    Am I stepping into an irony trap, or did someone just argue that the public denies evolution because it’s too hard to find out about it because scientists are secretive?

  • http://dienekes.blogspot.com Dienekes

    Am I stepping into an irony trap, or did someone just argue that the public denies evolution because it’s too hard to find out about it because scientists are secretive?

    The public denies evolution for many different reasons, but it is certainly hypocritical of evolutionary biologists to urge the public to “look at the evidence” for evolution, when that primary evidence is hidden away in closed-access journals.

    Many new research findings are publicized in mainstream media every day, but any inquisitive citizen who wants to follow up on them will invariably find himself faced with a paywall. That is a rotten way to increase the population’s interest and involvement in science if the products of science are hidden from the population!

  • J.J.E.

    @miko and related comments:

    Academic publications are rapidly becoming open access. While I’ve no doubt that there are plenty of problems academics can’t work together to solve, Open Access isn’t one of them. Not only are there arXiv and Pubmed Central, there are also the BMC journals, the PLoS journals, as well as open access tracks in many mainstream journals that are otherwise not open access, like PNAS, Genome Research, and Molecular Biology and Evolution. Moreover, societies are starting to move in the direction of open access when starting new journals, like the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution did when it founded the new journal, Genome Biology and Evolution. The Genetics Society of America did something similar with G3. Moreover, new proposals for journals with an intended impact on par with Nature, Science, and Cell are being made with open access front and foremost ( http://www.hhmi.org/news/20110627.html ).

    I’ve no idea what you think would constitute “solving” versus “failing to solve” this problem. Certainly, the problem hasn’t been solved overnight. But is instantaneous adoption of open access really the expectation? The ability to loosen the strangle hold of academic publishing monopolies has only been cost-effective since internet access became ubiquitous. And already, open access is flourishing and is continuing to grow ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access ).

    Sure, there are plenty of hurdles remaining. But I see articles like Razib posted as symptoms of the cracking edifice of publishing monopolies. The complaining in that article is getting large circulation in the Guardian. Who, outside of academia, knew or cared before now? It is a very difficult problem to solve without monopoly busting government intervention, but the academics themselves are leading the charge to diversify the market. Now at least five of the top journals that evolutionary geneticists read (PNAS, PLoS Biology, PLoS Genetics, MBE, and Genome Research) have open access options, for just one example. And there are a host of other, less high profile open access journals or journals with open access options that an evolutionary geneticist can publish in, like Genetics, GBE, G3, or Genome Biology.

    Maybe things are better in biology and maybe other fields are doomed, but in my field, I don’t see a failure (yet). What I see is a very promising beginning that is improving every year.

  • Zora

    Printing and distribution costs for the deadtree versions of the journals are minor compared to:

    1) costs of *organizing* peer review and editorial selection
    2) costs for editing, proofreading, and layout

    If you haven’t edited an academic article, you have no idea of how much work it takes to massage a submission into intelligible prose written in the journal’s house style. Freelance editors and proofreaders aren’t getting rich, but they do need to make enough to pay the bills.

    This reminds me of arguments that ebooks should cost next to nothing because there are no printing and distribution costs. Sorry, but for ebooks, as for articles, most of the costs are incurred in selection and editing. If you cut out selection, editing, and proofreading, you get the average self-published ebook: a disaster that would never make it out of the slushpile at a reputable publisher.

    BUT … as Monbiot points out, the profit margins at Elsevier et al. indicate that they don’t need to charge astronomical fees to pay their editors. We could slash costs drastically without affecting the quality of the publications.

    One way forward might be to set up non-profit foundations that will fund electronic publication of articles in specific fields. Submitters might pay a small fee ($50?) to discourage spammers and crackpots. Journal staff would weed out the slush that makes it past the financial barrier. The residue could be handed off to peer reviewers. If accepted, articles would be edited and laid out at no additional charge to the submitters. Yes, there would be the initial problem of raising the money for the foundations, but I don’t think that this would be insurmountable.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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