Lots of discussion online lately about unpaid peer reviews and whether this indicates a “degraded sense of community” in academia, improper commoditization of the unwritten responsibilities of academics, or a sign that we should rethink incentives in academia. (NB: that’s my galloping sound-bite-ization of those three posts, which you should go read in full.)

Part of this “reviewers don’t get paid” thing is good, because it indicates that academics broadly are waking up to how badly they’ve been had by commercial publishers. It’s part of that necessary anger that Scott Aaronson wrote about back when. But I can also understand why people are pushing back and saying, “Oh, if you don’t review you’re not supporting the academic community that (in part) makes your career possible. We should all pitch in and do the work.” Until recently, there was no way to separate those two strands: in doing peer reviews (and editing, etc.), one was both supporting the community as a good citizen, and also, unavoidably, helping commercial publishers line their pockets. But now that previously single path has bifurcated (no, not that way). Now it’s possible to be a good citizen for the community by editing and reviewing for OA journals, and stick it to the barrier-based publishers by not editing and reviewing for them (here’s how to politely decline, and see more discussion here).

Here’s how jacked the situation is: if you edit or review for a barrier-based publisher whose journals you also subscribe to or otherwise pay for, then in effect you are paying them for the privilege of reviewing. Put like that, it sounds insane. In any normal transaction, I give you X and you give me Y in return, because we’ve jointly agreed that these things are of roughly equal worth. In barrier-based publishing, academics give publishers (1) their papers, which publishers then exert copyright over, (2) their effort as editors and reviewers, and (3) their money, in subscriptions or other access fees, individually or collectively as institutions. And publishers sell the work back to us, retaining the copyright, and reap massive profits. There is no part of that sequence where academics – and indeed humanity at large – are getting the upside of the deal. The publishers are running the table on us, because for a long time, there were no other options. That’s not true anymore.

In his post on community, Zen Faulkes wrote, “I think people are refusing to do reviews in part because they don’t feel connected to the academic community.” Possibly. But maybe people are refusing to do reviews because they’re tired of being had. Has anyone done any work that would allow us to test those hypotheses? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

TL;DR: The separation of community goals and corporate profits shouldn’t be a fine theoretical point of discussion. It should be what we lead with. Yes, I will support the academic community. No, I won’t donate my time and effort to rapacious barrier-based publishers. It’s possible to achieve both of those things at once. And we should.

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This morning, I was invited to review a paper — one very relevant to my interests — for a non-open-access journal owned by one of the large commercial barrier-based publishers. This has happened to me several times now; and I declined, as I have done ever since 2011.

I know this path is not for everyone. But for anybody who feels similarly to how I do but can’t quite think what to say to the handling editor and corresponding author, here are the messages that I sent to both.

First, to the handling editor (who in this case also happened to be the Editor-in-Chief):

Dear EDITOR NAME,

I’m writing to apologise for turning down your request that I review NAME OF PAPER. The reason is that I am wholly committed to the free availability of all scholarly research to everyone, and I cannot in good conscience give my time and expertise to a paper that is destined to end up behind PUBLISHER‘s paywall.

I know this can sound very self-righteous — I am sorry if it appears that way. I also recognise that there is serious collateral damage from limiting my reviewing efforts to open-access journals. My judgement is that, in the long term, that regrettable damage is a price worth paying, and I laid out my reasons a few years ago in this blog post: https://svpow.com/2011/10/17/collateral-damage-of-the-non-open-reviewing-boycott/

I hope you will understand my reasons for pushing hard towards an open-access future for all our scholarship; and I even hope that you might reconsider the time you yourself dedicate to PUBLISHER‘s journal, and wonder whether it might be more fruitfully spent in helping an open-access palaeontology journal to improve its profile and reputation.

Yours, with best wishes,

Mike.

Then, to the corresponding author, a similar message:

Dear AUTHOR NAME,

I was invited by JOURNAL to review your new manuscript NAME OF PAPER. I’m writing to apologise for turning down that request, and to explain why I did so.

The reason is that I am wholly committed to the free availability of all scholarly research to everyone, and I cannot in good conscience give my time and expertise to a paper that is destined to end up behind PUBLISHER‘s paywall.

I know this can sound very self-righteous — I am sorry if it appears that way. I also recognise that there is serious collateral damage from limiting my reviewing efforts to open-access journals. My judgement is that, in the long term, that regrettable damage is a price worth paying, and I laid out my reasons a few years ago in this blog post: https://svpow.com/2011/10/17/collateral-damage-of-the-non-open-reviewing-boycott/

I hope you will understand my reasons for pushing hard towards an open-access future for all our scholarship; and I even hope that you might consider withdrawing your work from JOURNAL, and instead submitting to one of the many fine open-access journals in our field. (Examples: Palaeontologia Electronica, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, PLOS ONE, PeerJ, PalArch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Royal Society Open Science.)

Yours, with apologies for the inconvenience and my best wishes,

Mike.

Anyone is welcome to use these messages as templates or inspiration if they are useful. Absolutely no rights reserved.

As explained in careful detail over at Stupid Patent of the Month, Elsevier has applied for, and been granted, a patent for online peer-review. The special sauce that persuaded the US Patent Office that this is a new invention is cascading peer review — an idea so obvious and so well-established that even The Scholarly Kitchen was writing about it as a commonplace in 2010.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can't verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can’t verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Well. What can this mean?

A cynic might think that this is the first step an untrustworthy company would take preparatory to filing a lot of time-wasting and resource-sapping nuisance lawsuits on its smaller, faster-moving competitors. They certainly have previous in the courts: remember that they have brought legal action their own customers as well as threatening Academia.edu and of course trying to take Sci-Hub down.

Elsevier representatives are talking this down: Tom Reller has tweeted “There is no need for concern regarding the patent. It’s simply meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied” — which would be fine, had their proprietary waterfall system not been itself copied from the ample prior art. Similarly, Alicia Wise has said on a public mailing list “People appear to be suggesting that we patented online peer review in an attempt to own it.  No, we just patented our own novel systems.” Well. Let’s hope.

But Cathy Wojewodzki, on the same list, asked the key question:

I guess our real question is Why did you patent this? What is it you hope to market or control?

We await a meaningful answer.

When a paper goes for peer-review at PLOS ONE, the reviewers are told not to make any judgement about how important or sexy or “impacty” the paper is — to judge it only on methodical soundness. All papers that are judged sound are to be published without making guesses about which will and won’t improve the journal’s reputation through being influential down the line. (Such guesses are hopelessly inaccurate anyway.)

When PLOS ONE was new, this approach drew scorn from established publishers, but now those publishers all have their own journals that use similar editorial criteria (Nature’s Scientific Reports, AAAS‘s Science Advances, Elsevier’s first attempt, Elsevier’s second attempt, the Royal Society’s Royal Society Open Science). Those editorial criteria have proved their worth.

But what are we going to call this style of peer-review?

It’s not a new problem. I discussed it with with David Crotty three years ago without reaching any very satisfactory conclusion. But three years have not really helped us much as we try to agree on a term for this increasingly important and prevalent model.

What are the options on the table?

PLOS ONE-style peer-review. It’s a cumbersome term, and it privileges PLOS ONE when that is now far from the only journal to use this approach to peer-review (and may not even have been first).

Peer-review Lite. A snide term coined by people who wanted PLOS ONE to fail. It’s not a good description, and it carries baggage.

Scientific peer-review. This one came up in the discussion with David Crotty, but it’s not really acceptable because it would leave us still needing a term for what the Open Library of Humanities does.

Objective peer-review. This is the term that was used at the Royal Society meeting at the start of this week — the idea being that you review objectively for the quality of the research, but don’t make a subjective judgement of its importance. Several people didn’t like this on the grounds that even the “objective” half is inevitably subjective.

Any others that I missed?

I don’t have a good solution to propose to this problem; but I think it’s getting more urgent that we do solve it. We have to have a simple, unambiguous, universally understood term to understand a model of peer-review that is becoming increasingly pervasive and may well end up as the dominant form of peer-review.

Plough in — comments are open!

Update, 6pm

Liz Wager asked a very similar question four years ago, over on the BMJ blog: what to call the journals that use this approach to peer-review. Terms that she mentions include:

  • “bias to publish” (from BioMed Central)
  • “non-selective” (her own coinage, which she doesn’t like)
  • “bumboat” (I can’t explain this one, you’ll have to read the article)
  • “author-driver” or “author-focused” publication (AFP for short)
  • “search-located” (which she coins, the dismisses as tautologous)
  • “unconventional” or “non-traditional” (discarded as disparaging)
  • “non-discriminatory”, “impartial” or “unprejudiced”
  • “general” (dismissed as a non-starter)
  • “broad-spectrum” (inapplicable to specialised journals)

And then in the comments various people proposed:

  • “below the fold” journals
  • “omnivorous” (I quite like that one)
  • “alternative”
  • “Voldermortian journals”, which I don’t understand at all.
  • “Unfiltered”, contrasted with “filtered”
  • “inclusive”, contrasted with “exclusive” (I quite like this, too)
  • “high volume low hassle”

But there’s no conclusion or preferred term.

There’s been some concern over Scientific Reports‘ new scheme whereby authors submitting manuscripts can pay $750 to have them peer-reviewed more quickly. Some members of the editorial board have quit over this development, feeling that it’s unfair to authors who can’t pay. Myself, I feel it at least shows admirable audacity — NPG has found a way to monetise its own lethargy, which is surely what capitalism is all about.

The real problem with this scheme is that $750 is an awful lot to gamble, as a sort of “pre-APC”, at a point when you don’t know whether your article is actually going to be published or not. If the peer-review returns an unfavourable verdict it’s just money down the drain.

So I welcome today’s announcement that, for only a slightly higher payment of a round $1000, it’s now possible to bypass peer-review completely, and move directly to publication. This seems like a much fairer deal for authors, and of course it streamlines the publication process yet further. Now authors can obtain the prestigious Nature Publishing Group imprint in a matter of a couple of days.

Onward and upward!

Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).

Figure 4. Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Figure 4: Effect of adding cartilage to the neutral pose of the neck of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84. Images of vertebra from Hatcher (1901:plate III). At the bottom, the vertebrae are composed in a horizontal posture. Superimposed, the same vertebrae are shown inclined by the additional extension angles indicated in Table 2.

Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)

The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:

28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication

TOTAL 49 days

Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.

At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!

Screenshot from 2014-12-23 10:39:34

 

A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.

Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!

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.