Collateral damage of the non-open reviewing boycott
October 17, 2011
Regular readers will know that, as part of a broader strategy favouring open-access publishing, I no longer perform peer-reviews for non-open journals. (I mentioned a recent example in a comment on the last article.) I’ve had support for this stance from some impressive quarters; but also a fair bit of criticism from people who I respect. That includes some strong open-access advocates who agree with me on where we want to land up, but don’t like the tactics I’m using to get there.
The most detailed of those criticisms in an article entitled Should we review for any old journal? by Andy Farke, and I think it deserves a detailed response. Andy’s open-access credentials are impeccable — he writes about the issue in detail on his blog, and is an editor for PLoS ONE, by most metrics the leading open-access journal. So when he has a criticism, it’s worth hearing.
Andy has several concerns. Let’s look at them in turn.
I argue that, unless carefully constructed, such reviewing boycotts may never be noticed by some of the concerned parties. A typical journal editor will think “oh, Reviewer 1 refused to review. . .on to Reviewer 2.” Even if the refusal to review is accompanied by a note explaining the reasoning behind the refusal, only the editor will ever see it (and potentially the publishing admins – who have little vested interest in changing the status quo).
This is an excellent point. A protest that no-one knows about is not going to be an effective protest. From now on, whenever I turn down a non-open review, I will send a message to the editor, the publisher and the authors. (Andy suggests this as one candidate strategy later on in his article.)
Second, when the pool of qualified reviewers is small to begin with, this could have the consequence of letting some really bad stuff slip into publication.
I’m not sure I buy this. If a journal can’t find reviewers for an article, the only honourable thing for them to do is return it to the author and say so, not give it a free pass. At any rate, it looks like a purely hypothetical problem to me. If and when the day comes that a paper comes out that I was asked to review and declined, and I see that it’s bad and should have been blocked in review — on that day I will start to try assessing the damage. At the moment, though, the apparent damage is zero.
I am not — not quite — going to say “never”. For example, suppose someone found a more complete specimen of Xenoposeidon and submitted the description to Cretaceous Research, a non-open Elsevier journal that is actually a good match for the subject matter. That truly is a paper that would benefit most from being reviewed by the person who has spent an order of magnitude more time looking at and thinking about NHM R2095 than anyone else on the planet. In such a situation I might waive my policy.
But I’m hesitant about even admitting that. Once you start to admit that there may be extra-special circumstances, it’s easy to start making more and more exceptions. I’m not going to do that.
Anyway … Back to Andy:
Third, the journals are not the ones hurt most directly by review boycotts; it is the authors. The journal will almost always find someone else to review the paper (with a delay as these reviewers are recruited); and if not, the manuscript will be returned for lack of qualified reviewers (with a delay as the paper is prepared for submission elsewhere). Rightly or wrongly, publications are a primary currency of academia. If getting that publication delayed means my friend or colleague doesn’t get a job, or a grant, or tenure, I have hurt them, not just the profits of the journal.
Here we come to the real issue — the “collateral damage” that Andy mentioned in his title.
First, let’s say that he’s right — there is damage. A reviewing boycott is going to hurt authors. It’s regrettable. If I could hurt the non-open journals without hurting the authors, I surely would. So this is a tough situation. It’s a tough decision.
But as Matt has ably pointed out, we’re in a war. A combination of historical accidents have manoeuvred us into a position where the interests of authors are directly opposite to those of publishers: in short, authors want their papers to be read by everyone with maximum convenience, and publishers want to prevent them from being read except by an elite few who are able and willing to pay. My judgement is that whatever damage I may do to authors through a reviewing boycott is a tiny, tiny proportion of the damage that non-open publishers do to them every time they give away their work to a corporation that hides it away in a walled garden.
In short: there is no wholly good solution here. It’s a matter of finding the least bad solution. In the long term it is, unquestionably, to the advantage of all authors for open access to become ubiquitous. Without a doubt we will need to make sacrifices to reach that future, including passing up opportunities to place our work in higher impact venues. This is one more such sacrifice.
… and at this point, I’m a bit nonplussed. What did we expect? That it would just fall into our laps? That the gigantic multinational corporations that eat our work would happily hand it all back to us? That they would cheerfully give up the anti-science business model that has made them record profits year on year? Did we think there would be no fight? That we wouldn’t have to give anything up along the way?
And so on to Andy’s constructive suggestions.
1) Refuse to review the paper, but fully explain why in a letter submitted directly and separately to the editor, journal, and authors. This way everyone gets the message – not just a select few.
This is definitely the way to go. To be clear: it’s not the only strategy we should be pursuing, but it’s the best way I’ve heard to handle the problem of reviewing.
(Might journals object to an invited reviewer contacting the authors directly? I can’t think of a legitimate reason why they might, but I suppose it’s possible. Anyone have any experience of this?)
2) Review the paper, but include a message with the review (perhaps both in the review text and in a direct letter to the authors) on the shame of the work being locked behind a paywall. Make the authors think twice about whether or not the intended audience will ever see the paper.
This strikes me as weak sauce. I think of it as an emergency backup plan for the very rare cases where there really is a compelling reason to review something in a non-open journal, such as the Xenoposeidon example above.
But even then, aren’t there better alternatives? Like simply contacting the authors directly, and explaining why you think it’s important that they send the work elsewhere? Realistically, no author having gone successfully through peer-review is then going to pull the paper on a reviewer’s recommendation and submit it elsewhere. Better to raise that possibility before the review has happened.
3) Submit your own work to open access journals, cite work in open access journals, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.
Oh! Let me be very clear here: I certainly never meant to suggest a reviewing boycott as a substitute for a submission boycott! No, it’s meant to accompany a proper open-access submission policy.
Again, I am not going to say “never”. There are situations where no doubt I will be more or less forced to allow my work to appear in non-open venues — for example, when I speak at a conference, contribute a paper for the proceedings volume, and find that the volume is going to be non-open. But even then, there are other approaches to be taken. For example, when exactly this happened with my sauropod history paper being published in a non-open and ludicrously expensive Geological Society special volume, I found a way to retain the right to freely redistribute copies of my chapter. (I have not used the SPARC Addendum yet, but may be useful in such situations … even if it does sound like a John Grisham novel.)
OK, last lap. Here we go. Andy says:
I sympathize with the sentiment that we academics shouldn’t be propping up the questionable practices of some publishers, but we also need to avoid shooting ourselves (and our colleagues) in the foot as a result.
I have to disagree. Foot damage is regrettable, but it’s better than slavery. What’s maybe got lost in this pragmatic discussion of ways and means is that the status quo is wrong. Everyone has to make their own moral choices, but for me it would be Just Plain Wrong to perpetuate the corporate incarceration of publicly funded science.
It’s hard to write about these things without coming across as overwrought and hysterical, but let me try an analogy here. The economic sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s, intended to bring about the end of apartheid, most certainly hurt the very citizens that they were intended ultimately to help. But most people would agree that history has vindicated those sanctions. It was a hard decision to make. No doubt there were plenty of anti-apartheid activists who, with the best intentions, opposed the sanctions because of their immediate negative effect on people on the ground. But, happily, longer-term thinking won out. We need to be similarly far-sighted.
Is it hyperbole to compare paywalled research with institutionalised racism? Yes, of course. But maybe not by so much as you think. The developing world is beset by appalling diseases that we in the West don’t even need to think about, and suffers constant famines. Who knows what fruitful research might have been done — both by professional scientists in those countries and by unaffiliated amateurs in the West — if only the foundational research was available to them? Open Access isn’t just a First World Problem: it potentially affects health and access to food and water for millions, or even billions, of people.
So, yeah. I am cool with a bit of collateral damage.