Nature and Elsevier on peer-reviewing
October 15, 2011
I was directed to an article entitled Rookie Review on Nature Jobs by a tweet from Andy Farke (author of the Open Source Palaeontologist and an editor at PLoS ONE). It has a lot of good stuff in it, once you get past the opening section. But getting past that opening was difficult for me, because my blood was boiling by the time I reached the end of the third paragraph.
Here, then, is the opening of the article, with my translation.
Claudio Casola had no idea that journal editors had consistently rated his manuscript reviews highly. Then he received an award from Amsterdam-based publisher Elsevier for his “exceptional contribution to the quality of the journal Gene”.
Translation: Casola has been suckered into investing a huge amount of time and expertise, over and over again, into improving the work of other scientists, funded from the public purse, in order to increase the profits of a foreign-owned corporation that locks away the resulting science from the people who funded it. He has done this so often and so well, that the corporation has very generously given him “an award”. Anyone care to guess the cash value of that award?
(Notice by the way that most reviewers don’t even get the courtesy of feedback from the publisher. Casola is a very rare exception.)
Casola, a postdoc in evolutionary genetics at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that his first review, in 2006, was typical of rookie referees. He spent more than 10 hours on the manuscript, poring over the details and asking faculty members for advice. After reviewing more than two dozen papers in the past five years, he has been able to cut the process down to three hours, quickly assessing the originality and merit of a paper. “Reviewing manuscripts makes me feel like I’m a fully fledged member of the scientific community,” says Casola.
There is it, folks. The actual reason he gives all this work to a profiteering corporation? They’ve managed to persuade him that they are the Scientific Community rather than a parasite that clings to it. Fished in.
“Young scientists should get involved in the process as they start building their careers, particularly since reviewers are harder and harder to find,” says Bart Wacek, an executive publisher in charge of Elsevier’s genetics portfolio based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Translation: “Young scientists should give us free professional work, and establish the habit early in their careers”, says Bart Wacek, an executive publisher at Elsevier. “Only by getting started young can researchers hope to develop fully-fledged Stockholm Syndrome. We need them to put in enough effort early on that the sunk cost fallacy begins to pervade their thinking: then they will invent reasons to justify to themselves why it’s a good thing to give this work to profiteers instead of to the wider scientific community. Better still, in some cases they will even evangelise on our behalf!”
Young reviewers are certainly sought after. “The best referees are postdocs,” says Leslie Sage, a senior physical-sciences editor at Nature in Washington DC. “They are at the top of their game, well versed in the literature and politically naive enough to tell the truth.”
“… and sufficiently in awe of Real, Grown-Up Journals that they will do whatever we tell them in exchange for the oxygen of acceptance. Catch ’em while they’re young!”
Despite all this, the Nature Jobs article is worth reading because it does contain some useful hints about what makes a good review — especially this nugget: “Reviewers should avoid concentrating on what the study could show in principle. The focus should be on what it actually shows.” A big amen on that. Nothing is more frustrating than getting back a review that says “Well, you should have written this other paper instead.”
Still and all, folks. You can choose where to direct your reviewing effort. You can give it to open-access journals that let the whole world benefit from your work (and more important, from the author’s work and the nation’s funding). Or you can give it to Elsevier shareholders.
It’s on the record that I think it’s stupid to do the latter — immoral, even, in an “all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing” way, because donating to paywalled journals helps to prop up their corrupt business and therefore keeps research out of the hands of the people who pay for it. (Who are these people who want access but can’t get it? See Peter Murray Rust’s excellent ongoing series on “The Scholarly Poor” — Dentists, Industry, The Climate Code Foundation, Patient groups, so many different types.)
So again I urge you — join me in refusing to do free work for paywalled journals.
Update (Sunday 16th October 2011)
Andy Farke offers a counterpoint over on the Open Source Paleontologist. He raises important points that deserve to be properly addressed: I’ll probably do that in a new post here rather than as a comment. Stay tuned!