Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon

January 27, 2012

I mean seriously. The original post over on @mbeisen’s It is NOT junk blog drew out a Elsevier flack Tom Reller who had a thing or two to say about the Research Works Act being peddled by New York CongressCritter Carolyn Maloney. In that last linked comment, Mr. Reller claimed:

When I say peer review process, I think you’re hearing just peer review. Peer review is exactly what you say it is, volunteer work in the name of academic science, and it never would have dawned upon me to have to say this, but of course we know peer reviewers aren’t paid. And we know that we, and our journals need them. If you ever reviewed for one of our journals, thank you, and we truly hope you continue to do so. I know all about the issues related to how difficult it is to find quality peer reviewers. You’re often paid by the government, and it is time consuming, we get it.

All we’re saying is that there is a peer review process, and there is more to peer review than just the peer reviewers themselves. Our systems track it, our publishers support it, then there’s what we do to print and preserve the outcome. Michael granted as much.

We call final published articles private sector information products because we (the private sector) have added value, as before mentioned, to the articles.

I find my self searching for this “added value”. By listening and reading what the publishers and their representatives have to say, perhaps we can find some clues to this mysterious value that they add to the scientific paper.

One Graham Taylor, flack for the UK Publishers Association, has an opinion bit up in the Guardian (in response to something written by Mike Taylor). Mr. Taylor opines:

We need a flow of accessible funds through the scholarly communication system to finance what we do. Hitherto these funds have flowed through academic library budgets, the “old” subscription model, which Dr Taylor describes as “a useful service in pre-internet days”. In future they will likely flow from research funding agencies (and a few charities and foundations) looking to enable open access.

Well, yes and no. We do need to continue to finance the distribution of scientific papers / scientific information. For sure. What we don’t need is Mr G. Taylor’s “we”. The publishers are a classic middle man, standing between the producer and consumer. Sometimes that brings value, sometimes it brings blood sucking leechery that adds cost but no value to the system. The real question at hand is determining whether the traditional publishers are starting to veer from “adds value” into “leeching off the system”.

Publishers pursue the goal of universal access through whatever means are practically available.

HAHAHAHAH! Where “practically available” means “We, the publishing middle man get paid.” Right? If their goal was universal access they’d be whittling down their profits to the unmentionable, cutting salaries down toward the public sector salaries, etc. Ever seen the publisher representatives in a typical editorial board meeting? Yeah, you can pick them out by the nice clothes. Ahem.

It is widely acknowledged that there is not an access problem for researchers based in universities, research institutes or the corporate sector.

Absolutely and completely false. The smaller institutions, colleges, etc do not have anywhere near the access to the breadth of journals available. And oftentimes they are forced to make tough choices because of journal “bundle” options offered by, e.g., Elsevier. Companies large and small have to decide how to fund securing the literature- some do it on a one-off basis because it is cheaper. Many folks at smaller biotechs hose off the local University in one way or another- through their spouses employment, through their old access from when they were a postdoc, friends..or just stopping by the University campus and using the wifi. Either way, people are having to cobble together their “access” to the entirety of the academic literature. With variable success.

Pub Med Central changed all that. All the subsequent research was available to anyone, from community college to small private college to biotech startup. All right there. Easy, peasy from the desktop.

Public funds have not paid for the peer-reviewed articles that are based on research supported by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They have only paid for the research itself and whatever reports the researchers are required to submit to the agency.

Another falsehood, wrapped up with a disingenuous misdirecting belittlement. “Only” for the research? ONLY????? These publishers seem universally unaware that the VAST, VAST majority of the value of an academic article is the bloody research. The damn content. That is what has value. The fancy layout? That’s nice and all but we can do without that. The science is the thing. Trying to dismiss this as a minor contribution is…well…..that takes some serious chutzpah.

There is another, more serious misdirection here. The public does in fact “pay for” the entire article at present. By way of library access fees and the other ways that articles are obtained. Money is fungible so one way or another, the public contribution in NIH grants, public University support, student tuition and probably even the health care system (hospitals need access, yo) pays for these articles.

Public funds are already paying the middle man “for the peer reviewed article”. The question is, once again, can we make this process more efficient (yet equally effective in distributing science) by eliminating the middle man?

The journal article based on the research has been the subject of significant extra investment that must somehow be recovered if scholarly communication as we know it is to survive.

I am still trying to get my head around this claim because it is the cornerstone of the publishers’ argument. What “significant extra investment”? The reviewers themselves work for free*. For real journals, with academic, real-scientist editorial staff, the editors are maybe paid a little and the administrative person who works in the Editor in Chief’s office gets paid as well. Sure. But this is penny ante stuff. There are not 5 to 10 full time people with the sole job of being editor. Suppose the NIH decided to run it’s own journals…think they couldn’t just take over the salary lines? Of course they could.

This brings me to the online peer reviewing software systems, such as ScholarOne Manuscripts or Editorial Manager. Sure, maybe some publishers have developed their products in house. But there are lots of options. These are not functions that we require the big publishers to provide either.

So what do the publisher’s add to the “peer review” of journal articles? I really don’t know. Keep in mind that I categorically reject the notion that we need GlamourMag style professional editors to get this job done.

It often appears to me that their only unique role in this process, given modern internet technologies and tools, is to figure out ways to keep sucking money out of the system, but providing “value” that we really don’t need.

many do object to a mandate that appropriates their material without compensation.

Now this is just gobsmacking. Since the vast majority of their “material” consists of the academic research, writing and peer reviewing services that they get for FREE, it is really frigging rich for the publishers to cry about appropriating material without compensation. I mean do they even listen to themselves? Ever?

Finally, the dinosaur sinking in the tar pit part:

Such journals are on the whole by their very nature tailored and adapted to the needs and interests of specific research communities. This is a complex and nuanced system that needs time to adapt to new methodologies.

Dedicated journals are an anachronism held over from before the advent of PubMed, pure and simple. Partitioning scientific research into field journals of different emphasis and focus was necessary for humans to find the most relevant work. Now we have search engines and online databases. The function served by subspecialization of print journals is entirely unnecessary at present. If you need it for organizational means in the (virtual) editorial offices of a general “Journal of the NIH” or “Journal of all US Science funded by the Taxpayers”, there is no reason that we couldn’t have subsections partitioned off.

Dr [M] Taylor’s assumption that this can somehow all be routinely accommodated on a “service” basis is to misunderstand the nature of publishing. Publishers invest at their own risk and quality standards are essential to manage that risk. We need a market to organise such a high volume of transactions. Take that away and we would be left with a Stalinist nightmare.

No, you misunderstand that we don’t give a rat’s patootie about “the nature of publishing”. We care about the distribution of scientific results! Print or even online “Publishing” as an industry is irrelevant. We just need the lower-case-p version of publishing. We do NOT need a “market” to organize any such thing. Does the “market” get involved in the peer review of NIH grants? No? Then why do we need it to publish the results? We do not.

And dude. Seriously. The “Stalinist nightmare” bit? Get a grip.

*UPDATE: Neuromusic emphasized a very important point in a comment. Peer reviewers work at no charge to the publisher. Their time is not “free” however, since this is considered to be part and parcel of their job. Whether it be “service” of a hard money faculty member or as part of time allocated on grant awards, it is expected that scientists will contribute to the review of manuscripts. This raises an interesting point. Consulting fees in industry vary, of course, but for a fairly new Assistant Professor the expected rate in my fields of interest is about $100 / hr or $1,000 / day. If publishers are going to act graspy about their “compensation” then they are going to have to start budgeting at least a couple of hundred smacks per reviewer for each manuscript. Hey, look at the plus side- going to be a lot easier to get papers reviewed if the invitations come with a $200 carrot.


No Responses Yet to “Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon”

  1. Pascale Says:

    Most journals also require payment of page charges, which usually come from the grants that pay for the research and thus represent more public money specifically for the article as published, not *just* the research component.

    There are many people out there, particularly physicians, who prefer to browse a printed journal focused on their specialty (and there are folks in this group who like to read some relevant basic science). There is still a market for, and value added, in Publishing with a capital P for this group. However, journals with a clinical readership can also get Pharma ad revenue to help defray their costs, unlike the purely basic science journal. Those ads can pay for a fair amount of the copy editing and other behnd the scenes work.


  2. Odyssey Says:

    Hmmm, I just published in a journal run by a very-much-for-profit publishing house*. Not sure I’m seeing any “added value”. And the staff at the publisher (not the editor, who is an academic) were less than responsive to some issues… Never again I think.

    * I won’t say who, but you can take some of the letters of their name and, appropriately, spell “evils”.


  3. arrzey Says:

    ” Public funds have not paid for the peer-reviewed articles that are based on research supported by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They have only paid for the research itself and whatever reports the researchers are required to submit to the agency. ”

    Nonsense. Last time I checked, I was shelling out >1k$ in PAGE CHARGES for the HONOR of publishing in their journals. AND, the money for those charges comes from NIH (thank you taxpayers).

    Furthermore, lots of the journals I publish in ask for an extra, upfront .5-1k$ for immediate release into PubMed. Why? Because lots of folks will pay for it (in the search for enhanced “h-scores”, I suppose).


  4. Very convincing arguments.
    What should we the proles do though?
    Just wait for the system to collapse?
    Or are there positive steps we can take??


  5. M Tomasson Says:

    Agree completely, but fear progress will be slow due to failure to identify the true
    added value the journals provide: STATUS. Rather than judge the science,
    lets face it that’s hard! We cede the work of paying respect to a small group
    that tell us what “top science” looks like. Love to journal bash, but we alao
    need to roll up our sleeves and use muscles of evaluation that have atrophied.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    Another point about them broadening access- Can anybody explain how the past couple-few years of PubMed Central have actually shrunk access to the lit? Anyone?


  7. drugmonkey Says:

    We all have our tipping points NeuroPolarbear . Also have different risk/benefit calculations.

    You *could* just submit your papers to journals with a publisher that offends you the least. Refuse to peer review for journals that are published by those that give greatest offense.

    Obviously this is going to have consequences.


  8. […] you shouldn’t even submit to these journals, but if you have […]


  9. Well in that case, how about a web Hall of Shame, so that each individual scientist can place themselves along it? Is Elsevier the worst?? Maybe if it got enough attention journals would compete to move a few spots in the ‘Dont be evil’ direction.


  10. HFM Says:

    So it’s a “Stalinist nightmare” when free-market innovation eats your lunch? FFS.

    Journals could get away with charging subscription fees back when they provided a service to the reader. They curated the literature, which is fine, but search engines are better at it. There are still value-added features which don’t come free – somebody’s got to coordinate the peer review process, then copy-edit and format the paper into something readable – but the main beneficiaries are the authors, not the readers. Making the authors pay for it sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

    And having worked in both small biotech and smallish institutes, I can say there is most certainly a cost barrier to access. (Why do you think so many small biotechs are located next to big universities – they’re leeching off the journal subscriptions.) Nobody will miss this system once it goes the way of the payphone, except those who are busy collecting rent on it.


  11. […] get their backs up a little bit if there was a suggestion that they simply give up their journal. Neuropolarbear asked what could be done about the assy position being taken by some publishers on the Research Works Act […]


  12. neuromusic Says:


    One thing I think should be corrected…

    “The reviewers themselves work for free.”

    Not really, though.

    “The reviewers themselves work at no expense to the publishers, instead they are paid for their reviews by the (often taxpayer-funded) institutions and granting agencies that provide their salaries.”


  13. “The reviewers themselves work at no expense to the publishers, instead they are paid for their reviews by the (often taxpayer-funded) institutions and granting agencies that provide their salaries.”

    But the key part there is “to the publishers” – yet the publishers profit.

    Why not take PubMed Central to the next level, have it be the ultimate publisher as well?

    And seriously, who cares about a few old doctors who like to have their dead-tree copies? If my father-in-law can learn to use an iPad, anyone can.


  14. Mr. Gunn Says:

    Another relevant point is that Pubmed Central serves 500000 pageviews a day. This is well above the scale needed to put a damper on publisher subscriptions if that’s ever going to happen & you know they’d be screaming about it if they had the merest whiff of evidence that it was.

    Let the publishers provide their “added value” in the form of typesetting and copyediting and get paid for their service, leaving the copyright with the author!

    There’s no reason that whatever value they add at the end of the chain should give them control over everything.


  15. You guys need something like us physicists have had for the past fifteen years – Yeah, many of us still publish in real journals, but some don’t anymore. They just post their papers to the arXiv. Feedback is rapid (within a week usually) and papers that aren’t terribly important or good are simply ignored. No editors, no fees, nada. Just science.


  16. Lab Lemming Says:

    Shouldn’t we clean our own houses before complaining about the commercial sector? I mean, Science is published by the AAAS, but isn’t demonstrably freer than Nature. Ditto for the various society publications. It’s a bit two-faced for us to claim publishers are evil while our societies also jack fees and restrict access to the journals they publish.


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    LL, I suspect many of the medium to small societies that hook up with, say, Elsevier feel themselves to be at the mercy of the publishing industry.


  18. […] do not provide peer-review, we do Accès libre à la science: l’opposition contre-attaque Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon […]


  19. iGrrrl Says:

    Neuro Polarbear, I sent a letter to my congressional reps. It included a link to this entry, and gave them the bottom line that this would reverse the decision of congress to make the results of tax-payer-funded research available to the tax payers. They do actually listen when they get enough input that is either phone or direct (not copy and paste) email. Witness the backing off on SOPA/PROTECT IP.


  20. […] From the Writer’s Desk: The dangers of press releases CDC says postpone breastfeeding: Making up facts, anti-vax style! Was Lou Gehrig’s ALS Caused by Tap Water? CDC’s long-awaited Morgellons study is out (expect controversy) Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon […]


  21. Vene Says:

    “The smaller institutions, colleges, etc do not have anywhere near the access to the breadth of journals available.”

    This is absolutely true. I’m still a science novice in many ways, but I’m currently involved in undergraduate research and I’m constantly finding interesting articles that my small university doesn’t have immediate access to. One of the most important papers was actually in one of those. At least I was able to get it with an interlibrary loan, but there’s issues with them I wasn’t aware of until recently (


  22. […] recent readers may have come to the conclusion that I am one of those Open Access wackanuts. I am not. I am, or […]


  23. […] Publisher statements that may get me on the boycott-peer-review bandwagon Nature’s shiny sounding copout on open access Take Your Placebos, Or Die Roche Guns For Illumina A male straight-snouted weevil (Brentidae) silhouetted against a leaf in an Australian rain forest. […]


  24. J Paul Says:

    “Ever seen the publisher representatives in a typical editorial board meeting? Yeah, you can pick them out by the nice clothes. Ahem.”

    I have a related story. At the Society for Neuroscience meeting a few years ago, some grad student friends and I went to an after meeting gathering for sleep researchers. It was in a fancy hotel near the convention center. There was an Elsevier party in a room next to ours, separated by velvet rope. We were the first ones there waiting in line. They had fancy food spreads. While we were waiting, staring at the food, someone waved us over, and we snuck under the rope. They had a fancy dessert spread, a filet mignon spread, a sushi bar where they were making fresh sushi to order, and an open bar. I was a little disappointed that I had to have Beafeater gin with my martinis because they didn’t have Tanqueray. In contrast, the room with the people who actually do all the work was small, crowded, not enough chairs, and a cash bar with crappy beer and wine.


  25. Autistic Lurker Says:

    It will take an outsider like google to bring a revolution in the publishing industry because, for the moment, there’s too much inertia around the various scoring system but something like google scholar (for publication metrics) coupled with google+ (for finding reviewer) might represent the underpinning needed for open access publishing.



  26. […] and others have criticised these responses (e.g. Mike Eisen, Drug Monkey). […]


  27. […] DrugMonkey post pointed to this article by a UK publishing industry representative named Graham Taylor. He dissects […]


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