Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.

January 23, 2012

Aaargh!  I’ve had it up to here with this.  I just read it yet again, this time in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to Michael Eisen’s recent piece in that paper on the RWA.  The letter says some good things, but then right in the middle we have this:

Mr. Eisen understates the value added to medical research articles by journals such as ours. Peer review is invaluable in selecting the highest impact medical research and improving its quality before publication.

This is just one more example of a pernicious and persistent assumption.  In the same vein, the AAP’s statement on the Research Works Act mentions peer-review five times in its first four paragraphs despite the fact that the RWA has nothing to do with peer review.  So for example:

The professional and scholarly publishing community thanks Representatives Issa and Maloney for supporting their significant investments that fund innovations and enable the essential peer-review process maintaining the high standards of U.S. scientific research.

People, please.  Publishers do not provide peer-review.  We do.  The same body of researchers that writes the papers for publishers also performs peer-review for publishers.  And we charge exactly the same amount: nothing.  Peer review is just one more gift that we give to the publishers.  It’s a gift that I don’t begrudge when the world can benefit from it, through open-access publishing.  But when the publisher locks up the result of my work — an intolerable thing to do at the best of times — it’s the most bare-faced effrontery for them then to claim that this is justified by the “added value” that my peer-reviewing effort provides.

So: where does the lie that publishers provide peer-review come from?

As described in the SPARC letter of September 6, 2007, AAP publishers commissioned PR “pit bull” Eric Dezenhall in January of that year to develop a campaign against open access.  His advice was (in part) that “the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review.”  (If you doubt PRISM’s objectivity in recounting this history, it’s also discussed in a Nature article ; but with perfect poetic irony, many of you won’t be able to read it because it’s paywalled.)

So “publishers provide peer-review” is a lie invented by a PR hack who was explicitly commissioned to come up with soundbites to undermine open access.  Please, people: don’t do commercial publishers’ jobs for them by perpetuating this lie.  If you must do their job for them, stick to doing by writing, illustrating, editing and reviewing their articles for them.

[I know that none of this is news to readers of this blog.  I am posting this article mainly so that I have a single place to point people to when I want to correct this misapprehension which the publishing industry is so assiduously perpetuating.  So please: if you hear people parroting the lie that publishers provide peer-review, direct them here!]

27 Responses to “Publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.”


  1. Publishers organize peer review, unless volunteers for a journal organize it. Then, publishers cash in on it. Later, they brag about providing peer review….. why does that smell like something between an outright lie and fraud to me?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    “Publishers organize peer review.” Even this is not really true. As you say, it is the editors (who typically are either volunteers, or paid a derisory stipend) who do this. For the publishers. For free.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    It’s even right there in the name. It’s called PEER review, after all.

  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    Major publishers use software platforms (eg ScholarOne) to do the peer reviewing. Unless the pubs built these systems (and @mbeisen claims not) then they don’t really even get credit for this part of peer review.

  5. caseybergman Says:

    Link to the paywalled commentary on “pit-bull” PR now added to the growing “Open Access Irony Award” citeulike library: http://www.citeulike.org/group/13803

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Pieter, thanks for that. Everyone else: his link is to an article about thecostofknowledge.com/, a site where you can publicly declare your refusal not to work for Elsevier. (The article is balanced enough to give a couple of reasons why you maybe shouldn’t sign.)

    DrugMonkey, you make an excellent point about ScholarOne and other automation systems for handling review. More than that, of course, there are even open-source systems that will do this for you at no direct cost — such as the Ambra system that the PLoS journals run on. [Update: I was mistaken here -- see Andy Farke's comment below.](Of course there are still indirect costs — staffing, support, etc. I am not suggesting that running a journal will ever be free!)

    Casey, I’d not seen the Open Access Irony Award before. Most amusing. Yet tragic.

  7. Mark Robinson Says:

    It’s great to see that you’re pushing thru with this, Mike. It looks like things are really starting to snowball. We need people such as yourself who are prepared to stick their heads over the parapet and hopefully act as rallying points for everyone else. Too often, people will grumble about something for a while but, because no-one takes the lead, things just fizzle out and the status quo is maintained.

    The more I read about Elsevier (and some of the others) the grubbier the appear. These two articles relate to recent past behaviour regarding the publishing of sponsored fake journals and that their parent company, Reed Elsevier, was heavily involved in the international arms trade. Add your own joke about the Hippocratic Oath here.

    Guardian article about arms trading
    Article in The Scientist about fake journals

  8. Paul Barrett Says:

    A point often missed is that a large part of being an active scientist is the evaluation of data and critiquing the interpretations of others. I would argue that performing peer review is actually an integral part of the job and that those of us in academic posts are expected to engage with this process by our peers and employers: we are therefore already paid by our employers to be peer reviewers in order that the subject process in a collegial fashion. I regard it as a part of my job to review the work of others, not an additional duty that should require extra recompense. If you refuse to peer-review a paper and are in an academic position, I think you are failing to engage fully with the process of getting science done.

    This is a separate issue from the economics of Open Access/editorial volunteering/publisher profits and should not be rolled into the same critiques.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    [Argh! Stupid WordPress and its comment management system! I wrote a long reply to Paul, then double-clicked on the next part of what he'd written that I wanted to copy and paste, and it threw away my draft replacing it with an editable copy of his comment. Hate hate hate that feature. So, start again ...]

    Thanks, Paul. I absolutely agree that peer-review is as much a part of our contribution to science as authoring is, and that withdrawing from the process — even for only a handful of journals — does do some damage. It’s unpleasant medicine; but it is medicine. My judgement is that although the damage done to palaeontology by refusing to review for a journal like Cretaceous Research is real damage, it is much less in the long run than the damage done by helping authors to place their work in such venues.

    Your comment has got me thinking about what I can do to help ensure my reviewing contribution overall doesn’t fall below par. Do you think it would be appropriate to contact the open-access journals in our field and actively invite reviews?

    “This is a separate issue from the economics of Open Access/editorial volunteering/publisher profits and should not be rolled into the same critiques.”

    I don’t see how you can say that. Not only is peer-review an intrinsic part of the whole publication process that’s under discussion here, it’s a part that the publishers themselves are specifically drawing attention to and claiming credit for. We absolutely can’t let that claim stand.

  10. Paul Barrett Says:

    Publishers have to advertise the fact that their journals employ peer-review – it the the gold-standard for assessing the competency and value of a paper. It would be idiotic of them not to advertise it (those journals that don’t mention it often don’t do it and have correspondingly low reputations and impacts). I think you’re being over sensitive in terms of what they’re really saying. It’s just advertising. Moreover, if I were you I wouldn’t contact journals to solicit reviews – that would make you look desperate. Journals contact referees because of their scientific expertise, not because of the referee’s views on whether their journal is doing the right thing or not.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    Publishers have to advertise the fact that their journals employ peer-review – it the the gold-standard for assessing the competency and value of a paper. It would be idiotic of them not to advertise it (those journals that don’t mention it often don’t do it and have correspondingly low reputations and impacts).

    Yes, of course! There is no reason on earth why a publisher would not say of its journals that they are peer-reviewed. In the same way, if I were persuading someone to come and live in my village, I would tell them that the crime-rate is low. But I wouldn’t claim the credit for that! I’m not the one out there policing the Forest of Dean, and it would be wrong for me to claim that I was. But this is exactly what publishers do when they claim credit for peer-review which is done by unpaid volunteers.

    So: “Submit to our awesome journal, it’s peer-reviewed” — good.
    But: “We should own your papers because we provide peer-review” — bad.

    Moreover, if I were you I wouldn’t contact journals to solicit reviews – that would make you look desperate. Journals contact referees because of their scientific expertise, not because of the referee’s views on whether their journal is doing the right thing or not.

    OK, thanks. I’ll hold back on that.

  12. Joanna Bryson Says:

    To be fair, publishers pay editors to coordinate peer review, so that’s *part* of the provision. Though often even this is really done by unpaid academic subeditors.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    Joanna, I assume most journals have some kind of paid editorial staff. But the great majority of the work is done by handling editors who are either (you guessed it) are unpaid volunteers, or are paid some absolutely nominal stipend like $500 per year. Again: publishers make some contribution, but tend to hugely overplay its significance.

    It would be good to know actual numbers for some specific journals. Anyone know such figures?

  14. Andy Farke Says:

    The fact that the fact that (many) scientists are expected to perform peer review as part of their paying jobs demonstrates even more clearly the hypocrisy of publishers’ claim to provide peer review.

    (as a small correction to one of Mike’s statements above, the PLoS ONE journal/article pages themselves are run on Ambra, but the manuscript submission system itself is run via EditorialManager, definitely a commercial product. My recollection is that the volume of papers required something beyond the open source software originally used.)

  15. dmaas Says:

    Never thought about this in terms of planned obsolescence before… not sure if it dos have anything to do with it other than the title of this (linked) blog post, and the fact that both are particularly yucky.

    http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Here’s another instance of this confusion, and one that hurts all the more because it’s a staunch open-access advocate falling for it: at The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics, the article Public access to research reports not peer-reviewed research: two major flaws in the argument speaks to one argument made by publishers as follows:

    If the services of scholarly journals publishers are not all that important, why not do away with them altogether?

    The scholarly publishers who are floating this idea really ought to give this a bit more thought. If it is just fine to provide the public with results of research in a form that is not peer-reviewed, why not everyone else? That is to say, if peer review is not that important, according to the people who coordinate peer review for a living – then perhaps we can do without?

    So “services of scholarly journals publishers” is equated with peer-review. Even Heather Morrison, who should know better, is going along with the publishers’ completely false assertion that they provide peer-review.

    Peer review is important. But since we provide it for each other — clue’s in the question, “peer review”, as Anonymous pointed out above — the involvement or otherwise of publishers has no bearing whatsoever on whether the current peer-review system is retained, adapted or discarded. None.


  17. [...] to have written so much about publishing politics recently, and so little about sauropod vertebrae!  That stuff is important, and I give you fair [...]


  18. [...] : Blog de M. Eisen Publishers do not provide peer-review, we do Accès libre à la science: l’opposition contre-attaque Publisher statements that may get me [...]

  19. glacialtill Says:

    Reblogged this on Glacial Till and commented:
    Sadly, I’ve been completely oblivious to the Boycott Elsevier petition circulating throughout the blogosphere. The more I read about it, the more sense it makes. They charge an exorbitant amount of money to access research journals, but don’t pay the researchers. It’s academic slavery. Thanks to Brian Romans (@clasticdetritus) for providing the link.


  20. [...] on other things, not so much: Mike Taylor writes that “[p]ublishers do not provide peer-review. We do.” There are two sides to this [...]


  21. [...] burden of filtering three million submissions to 20,000 journals.” They do not: researchers, donating their time, do this. Publishers’ role in the peer-review process is two steps removed from the coalface: they do [...]


  22. [...] they’ve grown used to, academic publishers have told us a lot of different lies (e.g. that they provide peer-review), and repeated them so often that we’re in danger of believing them by sheer [...]


  23. [...] the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly [...]


  24. [...] a lot of work to do to persuade me that their contribution (as opposed to the editors’ and reviewers’ freely donated contributions) are worth £2000 a pop, or even [...]


  25. [...] talking about “managing peer review and other publishing costs”. We all recognise that publishers do not provide peer-review — we do. But it’s also true that publishers don’t manage peer-review, either. Once again, we do [...]


  26. […] and prepare illustrations. You send it off to a journal, and a volunteer editor sends it out to volunteer peer-reviewers. You handle the reviews, revise your manuscript, write rebuttals as necessary, send in the revised […]


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