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!


7 Responses to “Nature and Elsevier on peer-reviewing”

  1. Great post. The more we make these views known, the more viral this gets – at least N-squared where N includes lurkers.

    If your blood boils at this, it will go supercritical at Springer’s shameles use of free copyediting:

    (Mike – don’t read this article – you will explode)

  2. This part is really bad for my view on Elevier: – “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 –

    He could not have phrased it any worse. And Elsevier should have never allowed this quote into the paper. I really hope editors of Elsevier journals will take distance from this point of view. And this is part of the story, I think. Journal editor hide behind their tiny role in the publishing world. Editors must stand up here, if they really care. I guess they do not. These are scientists we are talking about, that allow Elsevier to do these things. Those must be mobilized first. If the editor board steps down, there is no Elsevier journal.

    But, what I actually wanted to ask you. What about reviewing OA papers in non-open journals? Also bad? What if they start paying reviewers? For example, one free OA paper for each three reviews (an idea suggested by me and others, but never adopted by publishers)? The latter would even apply to Open Access publishers. I love to hear your ideas on that!

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Peter — I ignored your warning and read the article that you linked. Silly me. I didn’t actually explode, but I did bounce around the room a bit.

    Egon, you raise an important point about open articles in otherwise non-open journals. I think there is a reasonably strong case for not aiding such journals, which have a paywalled business model, even when the specific paper they’re handling is destined to be OA. But (believe it or not!) I do try to play nice as far as possible, so right now my policy is to accept or reject a review request based on the fate of that particular paper. (This also means of course that if PLoS ONE were for some reason to “publish” a paper in a non-open way, then I would refuse to review that.)

    As an example, I was asked a few days ago to review an interesting paper for Biology Letters. That is generally a non-open journal, but they offer authors the opportunity to pay an open-access fee to release their articles. So rather than outright rejecting the review, I emailed the handling editor:

    Many thanks for the invitation to review this important paper. I understand that, while your journal is not open access by default, you provide an option (“EXiS Open Choice”) by which authors can ensure that their article is open access immediately upon publication. If the authors of the present manuscript have elected to take this option, than I will be delighted to review it; if not, however, I cannot in good conscience contribute to a publication that will not be freely available to all.

    Please let me know whether I can proceed.

    The editor replied saying that the do not ask authors whether to opt for open-access until their paper has been accepted, so the review invitation was declined, (Shame: it was an interesting abstract, touching on matters that are important to me and a specimen that is close to my heart.)

    I don’t honestly think it makes a difference if non-open journals start paying reviewers. It would make the reviewers’ deal less immediately sucky, but the bottom line would still be that they would be locking up publicly funded research that it in the public interest, and we as reviewers would be complicit.

  4. Andy Farke Says:

    I’ve just posted my thoughts on this issue over at the Open Source Paleontologist. To summarize: 1) the authors are the ones who need to get the message, not just the editors; 2) I agree with previous comments that this could let bad work through, with the rest of us left to clean up the mess; and 3) a slow-down of review, no matter how nobly-intentioned, could have bad consequences for the careers of my colleagues and friends. There are solutions though (discussed in the post).

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. Bruce Schumacher Says:

    Hear, Hear.

  7. […] Then we got distracted and posted a whole sequence of articles on Open Access ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]).  If that seems like an intimidating sequence to catch up, you should just read the […]

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