The recent discussions about the creation of a new Gold OA journal (Royal Society Open Science) made me to write this post. In the following there is a concentrate of what I think about the legacy publishers, Gold OA publishers and the open peer review as a service.
Note: the idea is to put in one place the various bits of this analysis, so that it is easy to read. The text is assembled from slightly edited parts of several posts from chorasimilarity.
(Available as a published google drive doc here.)
Open peer review as a service
Scientific publishers are in some respects like Cinderella. They used to provide an immense service to the scientific world, by disseminating new results and archiving old results into books. Before the internet era, like Cinderella at the ball, they were everybody’s darling.
Enters the net. At the last moment, Cinderella tries to run from this new, strange world.
Cinderella does not understand what happened so fast. She was used with the scarcity (of economic goods), to the point that she believed everything will be like this all her life!
What to do now, Cinderella? Will you sell open access for gold?
But wait! Cinderella forgot something. Her lost shoe, the one she discarded when she ran out from the ball.
In the scientific publishers world, peer-review is the lost shoe. (As well, we may say that up to now, researchers who are writing peer-reviews are like Cinderella too, their work is completely unrewarded and neglected.)
In the internet era the author of a scientific research paper is free to share his results with the scientific world by archiving a preprint version of her/his paper in free access repositories. The author, moreover, HAS to do this because the net offers a much better dissemination of results than any old-time publisher. In order (for the author’s ideas) to survive, making a research paper scarce by constructing pay-walls around it is clearly a very bad idea. The only thing which the gold open access does better than green open access is that the authors pay the publisher for doing the peer review (while in the case of arxiv.org, say, the archived articles are not peer-reviewed).
Let’s face it: the publisher cannot artificially make scarce the articles, it is a bad idea. What a publisher can do, is to let the articles to be free and to offer the peer-review service.
Like Cinderella’s lost shoe, in this moment the publisher throws away the peer-reviews (made gratis by fellow researchers) and tries to sell the article which has acceptable peer-review reports.
Context. Peer-review is one of the pillars of the actual publication of research practice. Or, the whole machine of traditional publication is going to suffer major modifications, most of them triggered by its perceived inadequacy with respect to the needs of researchers in this era of massive, cheap, abundant means of communication and organization. In particular, peer-review is going to suffer transformations of the same magnitude.
We are living interesting times, we are all aware that internet is changing our lives at least as much as the invention of the printing press changed the world in the past. With a difference: only much faster. We have an unique chance to be part of this change for the better, in particular concerning the practices of communication of research.
In front of such a fast evolution of behaviours, a traditionalistic attitude is natural to appear, based on the argument that slower we react, a better solution we may find. This is however, in my opinion at least, an attitude better to be left to institutions, to big, inadequate organizations, than to individuals.
Big institutions need big reaction times because the information flows slowly through them, due to their principle of pyramidal organization, which is based on the creation of bottlenecks for information/decision, acting as filters. Individuals are different in the sense that for them, for us, the massive, open, not hierarchically organized access to communication is a plus.
The bottleneck hypothesis. Peer-review is one of those bottlenecks, traditionally. It’s purpose is to separate the professional from the unprofessional. The hypothesis that peer-review is a bottleneck explains several facts:
- peer-review gives a stamp of authority to published research. Indeed, those articles which pass the bottleneck are professional, therefore more suitable for using them without questioning their content, or even without reading them in detail,
- the unpublished research is assumed to be unprofessional, because it has not yet passed the peer-review bottleneck,
- peer-reviewed publications give a professional status to authors of those. Obviously, if you are the author of a publication which passed the peer-review bottleneck then you are a professional. More professional publications you have, more of a professional you are,
- it is the fault of the author of the article if it does not pass the peer-review bottleneck. As in many other fields of life, recipes for success and lore appear, concerning means to write a professional article, how to enhance your chances to be accepted in the small community of professionals, as well as feelings of guilt caused by rejection,
- the peer-review is anonymous by default, as a superior instance which extends gifts of authority or punishments of guilt upon the challengers,
- once an article passes the bottleneck, it becomes much harder to contest it’s value. In the past it was almost impossible because any professional communication had to pass through the filter. In the past, the infallibility of the bottleneck was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, with very few counterexamples, themselves known only to a small community of enlightened professionals.
This hypothesis explains as well the fact that lately peer-review is subjected to critical scrutiny by professionals. Indeed, in particular, the wave of detected plagiarisms in the class of peer-reviewed articles lead to the questioning of the infallibility of the process. This is shattering the trust into the stamp of authority which is traditionally associated with it. It makes us suppose that the steep rise of retractions is a manifestation of an old problem which is now revealed by the increased visibility of the articles.
From a cooler point of view, if we see the peer-review as designed to be a bottleneck in a traditionally pyramidal organization, is therefore questionable if the peer-review as a bottleneck will survive.
Social role of peer-review. There are two other uses of peer-review, which are going to survive and moreover, they are going to be the main reasons for it’s existence:
- as a binder for communities of peers,
- as a time-saver for the researchers.
I shall take them one-by-one.
On communities of peers. What is strange about the traditional peer-review is that although any professional is a peer, there is no community of peers. Each researcher does peer-reviewing, but the process is organized in such a manner that we are all alone.
To see this, think about the way things work: you receive a demand to review an article, from an editor, based on your publication history, usually, which qualifies you as a peer. You do your job, anonymously, which has the advantage of letting you be openly critical with the work of your peer, the author. All communication flows through the editor, therefore the process is designed to be unfriendly with communications between peers. Hence, no community of peers.
However, most of the researchers who ever lived on Earth are alive today. The main barrier for the spread of ideas is a poor mean of communication. If the peer-review becomes open, it could foster then the appearance of dynamical communities of peers, dedicated to the same research subject.
As it is today, the traditional peer-review favours the contrary, namely the fragmentation of the community of researchers which are interested in the same subject into small clubs, which compete on scarce resources, instead of collaborating. (As an example, think about a very specialized research subject which is taken hostage by one, or few, such clubs which peer-reviews favourably only the members of the same club.)
Time-saver role of peer-review. From the sea of old and new articles, I cannot read all of them. I have to filter them somehow in order to narrow the quantity of data which I am going to process for doing my research.
The traditional way was to rely on the peer-review bottleneck, which is a kind of pre-defined, one size for all solution.
With the advent of communities of peers dedicated to narrow subjects, I can choose the filter which serves best my research interests. That is why, again, an open peer-review has obvious advantages. Moreover, such a peer-review should be perpetual, in the sense that, for example, reasons for questioning an article should be made public, even after the “publication” (whatever such a word will mean in the future). Say, another researcher finds that an older article, which passed once the peer-review, is flawed for reasons the researcher presents. I could benefit from this information and use it as a filter, a custom, continually upgrading filter of my own, as a member of one of the communities of peers I am a member of.
All the steps of the editorial process used by legacy publishers are obsolete. To see this, is enough to ask “why?”.
- The author sends the article to the publisher (i.e. “submits” it). Why? Because in the old days the circulation and availability of research articles was done almost exclusively by the intermediary of the publishers. The author had to “submit” (to) the publisher in order for the article to enter through the processing pipe.
- The editor of the journal seeks reviewers based on hunches, friends advice, basically thin air. Why? Because, in the days when we could pretend we can’t search for every relevant bit of information, there was no other way to feed our curiosity but from the publishing pipe.
- There are 2 reviewers who make reports. (With the author, that makes 3 readers of the article, statistically more than 50% of the readers the article will have, once published.) Why? Because the pyramidal way of organization was, before the net era, the most adapted. The editor on top, delegates the work to reviewers, who call back the editor to inform him first, and not the author, about their opinion. The author worked, let’s say, for a year and the statistically insignificant number of 2 other people make an opinion on that work in … hours? days? maybe a week of real work? No wonder then that what exits through the publishing pipe is biased towards immediate applications, conformity of ideas and the glorified version of school homeworks.
- The editor, based solely on the opinion of 2 reviewers, decides what to do with the article. He informs the author, in a non-conversational way, about the decision. Why? Because again of the pyramidal organization way of thinking. The editor on top, the author at the bottom. In the old days, this was justified by the fact that the editor had something to give to the author, in exchange of his article: dissemination by the means of industrialized press.
- The article is published, i.e. a finite number of physical copies are typed and sent to libraries and particulars, in exchange for money. Why? Nothing more to discuss here, because this is the step the most subjected to critics by the OA movement.
- The reader chooses which of the published articles to read based on authority arguments. Why? Because there was no way to search, firsthand, for what the reader needs, i.e. research items of interest in a specific domain. There are two effects of this.
(a) The raise of importance of the journal over the one of the article.
(b) The transformation of research communication into vanity chasing.
Both effects were (again, statistically) enforced by poor science policy and by the private interests of those favoured by the system, not willing to rock the boat which served them so well.
Given that the entire system is obsolete, what to do? It is, frankly, not our business, as researchers, to worry about the fate of legacy publishers, more than about, say, umbrella repairs specialists.
Does Gold OA sell the peer-review service? It is clear that the reader is not willing to pay for the research publications, simply because the reader does not need the service which is classically provided by a publisher: dissemination of knowledge. Today the researcher who puts his article in an open repository does a much better dissemination than legacy publishers with their old tricks.
Gold OA is the idea that if we can’t force the reader to pay, maybe we can try with the author. Let’s see what exactly is the service which Gold OA publishers offer to the author (in exchange for money).
1. Is the author a customer of a Gold OA publisher?
I think it is.
2. What is the author paying for, as a customer?
I think the author pays for the peer-review service.
3. What offers the Gold OA publisher for the money?
I think it offers only the peer-review service, because dissemination can be done by the author by submitting to open repositories, like the arxiv.org , for free. There are opinions that that the Gold OA publisher offer much more, for example the service of assembling an editorial board, but who wants to buy an editorial board? No, the authors pays for the peer-review process, which is managed by the editorial board, true, which is assembled by the publisher. So the end-product is the peer-review and the author pays for that.
4. Is there any other service else sold to the author by the Gold OA publisher?
Almost 100% automated services, like formatting, citation-web services, hosting the article are very low value services today.
However, it might be argued that the Gold OA publisher offers also the service of satisfying the author’s vanity, as the legacy publishers do.
Conclusion. The only service that publishers may provide to the authors of research articles is the open, perpetual peer-review. There is great potential here, but Gold OA sells this for way too much money.