Publishers do not manage peer-review, either. We do.

February 27, 2013

I was reading Stephen Curry’s excellent summary of Monday’s Royal Society’s conference on “Open access in the UK and what it means for scientific research”. One point that Stephen made is:

[David Willetts’s] argument is that pursuance of green OA leads to an unstable situation in which the cancellation of subscriptions (because readers have free access) drains the system of the funds needed to manage peer review and other publishing costs.

As an analysis of the difficulties of Green OA, this is admirably precise. But my eye was caught by that phrase “funds needed to manage peer review and other publishing costs.”

I think we should make an effort to wean ourselves off the habit of talking about “managing peer review and other publishing costs”. We all recognise that publishers do not provide peer-reviewwe do. But it’s also true that publishers don’t manage peer-review, either. Once again, we do that, by acting as unpaid academic editors.


I know that this is not news. We all know this. But a habit of speech is affording publishers a degree of credit that their efforts don’t merit, and that clouds the debate. Let’s apportion credit where it belongs.

Of course there are still “other publishing costs”. These are real and not negligible (even though PeerJ’s financial model suggests they are much less than we have sometimes assumed). It’s right that we should acknowledge that there really are publishing costs; and that whatever financial model we end up will need to pay them somehow. But let’s make an effort to be more precise about what those publishing costs are. Managing peer-review is not one of them.

12 Responses to “Publishers do not manage peer-review, either. We do.”

  1. Except that some journals do pay their editors. At Nature, they are full-time employees. Some other journals do pay editors a sometimes substantial honorarium. I have no idea how common this is and suspect you are correct for *most* journals, but it would be good if someone could point us towards an informed listing.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    It’s true, Stephen, that some journals — a tiny, tiny proportion — do employ paid professional editors to handle peer-review instead of volunteer academics. Opinions vary as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. To generalise, my impression is that professional editors tend to think it’s good, whereas academics are inclined to think it’s bad. For myself, it’s hard to imagine that a specialist editor would be better placed to manage peer-review and make decisions about my palaeontology manuscript than a palaeontologist would.

    As for journals paying editors an honorarium: I have heard of this happening, but never of it being substantial. For example, one researcher I know who was an academic editor for an Elsevier journal was paid $500 per year in exchange for five hours’ work in a typical week. That comes out to less than $2 per hour, just over one quarter of the Federal minimum wage.

    That said, I agree it would be good to have more data. I’d encourage people who act as academic editors to leave comments here saying whether and how much they are paid, by which publishers. By all means, do so anonymously if you wish.

  3. To piggy back on Stephen’s comment, there are also many publishers/societies/journals who employ full-time staff as managing editors. These folks do indeed manage peer review and many involved in the peer review process would be lost without them. Often these managing editors work on a journal for years, while editors and reviewers may come and go. I’m not sure if this is the case for the majority of journals or not, but it’s been my experience that it is frequently the case. Also, while I know there are open source systems available to manage the submission and peer review process, a very large number of journals use systems such as scholarone or editorial manager, which publishers pay for. So, in the spirit of being precise, let’s not make broad statements which don’t apply to every scholarly publisher or organization.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Adam, you’re talking about managing editors, not handling editors. They don’t manage peer-review — handing editors do that. Managing editors manage the management of peer-review. I’m not saying that is a worthless task — far from it — but it’s two levels removed from the coalface.

    More generally, you are of course right that almost nothing we say about publishers applies uniformly to them all. I think that’s taken as read — otherwise we’d just have to hedge around everything we say with a dense thicket of provisos and riders. The bottom line here is that if we ask the question “who manages peer-review?”. the answer is “volunteer researchers”, not “publishers”.

  5. I had the following information from the editor of an Elsevier math journal for whom I refused to referee (respectable, but not prestigious): ” By the way, I feel that
    referees should be compensated; I’ve articulated this view several
    times to Elsevier when I’ve had the chance to provide suggestions.
    However, there seems to be little opportunity to change things, even in token ways. Although I would like to more precise, I think all I can say is that [NAME OF JOURNAL] associate editors get a mid-four figure salary (in US$), enough not to feel taken advantage of, but less than it should be. I also know that the chief editor receives quite a bit more, as he should.”

    This surprised me greatly, as I had assumed that editors did it only for the glory. I have no other data.

    As for managing peer review, he said this:

    “If you have a colleague who is an Elsevier editor, take a look at
    their tools for managing a journal. Similar open source tools could be developed, but serious dedicated resources would be needed. Working at Bell Labs and on software for my widely used discrete math text have taught me not to underestimate the task of creating top notch tools. Besides tools, Elsevier provides large databases of potential referees, referee reviewing history, and on-line access to large libraries of papers. They make it very easy to manage the editorial process. Their tools have helped our efforts to improve the journal [NAME]

    Having these tools available has made it possible to keep plugging
    away given the turmoil in the peer reviewing process. I have handled a nontrivial number of papers for which finding willing reviewers was a challenge. I’ve found that the Elsevier tools (together with Google Scholar) have made it possible for me to ultimately end up with two reports for even the most troublesome paper. ”

    This I find unconvincing. He did not respond to my request to explain how his tools were better than, say, Open Journal Systems. I have recently become managing editor of a journal using OJS OJAC, and I doubt that Elsevier could have anything better, except a larger reviewer database.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think reviewers should be paid. Moving yet more money around can’t be the solution to the problem of simplifying ownership, licences and access. Much better that the publishers simply charge lower APCs, rather than passing some of the APC on to reviewers.

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