Open-access megajournals reduce the peer-review burden

November 27, 2014

Despite the flagrant trolling of its title, Nature‘s recent opinion-piece Open access is tiring out peer reviewers is mostly pretty good. But the implication that the rise of open-access journals has increased the aggregate burden of peer-review is flatly wrong, so I felt obliged to leave a comment explaining why. Here is that comment, promoted to a post of its own (with minor edits for clarity):


Much of what is said here is correct and important. Although it would be nice if Nature could make a bit more of an effort to avoid the obvious conflict-of-interest issues that lead it to title the piece so misleadingly as an attack on open access. I am glad that so many of the other commenters on this piece saw straight through that rather snide piece of propaganda.

Only one important error of interpretation here, I think. I quote:

The rise of the open-access (OA) movement compounds this effect [i.e. the increasing number of articles needing peer-review.] The business case for online OA journals, to which authors pay submission fees, works best at high volume. And for many of these journals, submitted work is published as long as it is methodologically sound. It does not have to demonstrate, for example, the novelty or societal relevance that some traditional journals demand.

The implication is that journals of this kind (PLOS ONE, PeerJ, the various Frontiers journals) increase the total peer-review burden. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. They greatly reduce the the total amount of peer reviewing.

It’s an open secret that nearly every paper eventually gets published somewhere. Under the old regime, the usual approach is to “work down the ladder”, submitting the same paper repeatedly to progressively less prestigious journals until it reached one that was prepared to publish work of the supplied level of sexiness. As a result, many papers go through four, five or more rounds of peer-review before finally finding a home. Instead, such papers when submitted to a review-for-soundness-only venue such as PLOS ONE require only a single round of review. (Assuming of course that they are indeed methodologically sound!)

The rise of review-for-soundness-only journals (“megajournals”) is an unequivocal improvement in the scientific publishing landscape, and should be welcomed by all parties: authors, who no longer have to submit to the monumental waste of time and effort that is the work-down-the-ladder system; readers, who get access to new research much more quickly; and editors and reviewers who no longer have to burn hours re-reviewing and re-re-reviewing perfectly good papers that have already been repeatedly rejected for a perceived lack of glamour.

12 Responses to “Open-access megajournals reduce the peer-review burden”

  1. Hear hear. Open Access in general have no negative effect on the peer-review burden. And megajournals in particular have a considerable positive effect on the problem (as you point out). I find it bizarre that people continue to claim the opposite. It’s almost like they have an agenda to push…

  2. Tim Vines Says:

    We did a small scale study on how doubling in submissions to Mol Ecol affected the number of people we used as reviewers. We found that reviewer supply was effectively elastic, in that the authors of all the new papers seemed to become the new reviewers as well. It’s here (in Nature!):

    It’s therefore not proven that ever more submissions means more pressure on individual reviewers.

  3. Liz Allen Says:

    Thanks for writing this. I read the article, was unsettled by it (annoyed by the headline), and couldn’t quite find the time to articulate why over the Thanksgiving break. Appreciate you nailing it, going to feature this post on our Facebook page now.

  4. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    The huge profits of the commercial scientific publishers are paid for with money that is (supposedly) going to support science and education. I wonder how many more folk would have time to review papers if that money went to fund jobs in science rather than enrich stockholders.

  5. rijkswaanvijand Says:

    The main danger of OA, I think, is excessively specialised scientific language together with the many non-sequitur assumptions and hidden nuances included in scientific theory and literature. Especially the possibility that these obscurations may be obvious to studied scientists, but might be not so obvious to a layman audience. Together with strong technocratic tendencies, open access journals run a large risk of simply becoming conduits for propaganda instead of bastions of knowledge.

    This is of course not limited to OA, but it could certainly facilitate the dissemination of flawed ideas and ideologies.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    This makes no sense at all to me, rijkswaanvijand. It’s like saying “The main danger of the colour red is that red cars might run people over. This of course is not limited to red.”

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    Together with strong technocratic tendencies, open access journals…

    Um, what the hell are you talking about? What “strong technocratic tendencies” are these, that supposedly characterize OA journals but not barrier-based ones? That both isn’t true, and doesn’t help. Perhaps you missed that PLOS ONE and several other OA journals require authors to write plain-language summaries, stripped of jargon, to make their work more accessible to lay audiences.

    You may be badly misinformed, you may have an axe to grind (in which case, you are grinding the handle, not the head), or you may be a troll. Sort yourself out.

  8. Ken Says:

    There seems to be an assumption that authors don’t start with all the traditional journals and then work through the open access journals. Although I am thinking that with one of my papers it may be easier to just pay the money after the first couple of rejections. What obviously is needed is a study.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Why on earth would I waste my time starting with traditional journals? I don’t play that game — it’s waste of my time and effort, and a net loss for science. I publish my work where people will be able to read it.

  10. Tim Vines Says:

    There’s a clear need for a better workflow for science publishing – sequential submission and rejection as one works down the journal ladder takes up everyone’s time and achieves very little.

    My stab at a solution is Axios Review (, which is an independent peer review organisation. It’s so far working very well, in that papers reviewed by us have an 85% acceptance rate when they get submitted to a journal.

  11. […] than the number of scientists”. Rebutting this criticism, Mike Taylor argues that “Open-access megajournals reduce the peer-review burden”. In his […]

  12. David Marjanović Says:

    Why on earth would I waste my time starting with traditional journals? I don’t play that game —

    I must; I need the impact factor.

    Which is precisely why one of my next two manuscripts is going straight to PLOS ONE: it has a much higher impact factor (commonly 2 to 3 times as high) than any other journal that would even consider a manuscript of this length!

    an independent peer review organisation

    That’s an interesting idea.

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