The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Mon, 5 Jul 1999 18:33:31 +0100

On Fri, 2 Jul 1999, Frank Norman wrote:

> I have been following your perceptive and (to me) convincing
> arguments about the merits and demerits of the e-biomed proposal
> from Harold Varmus et al.
> In your posting on June 27th you said:
> > Quality control will continue to be an essential service, however, and its
> > costs will be recoverable from S/L/P savings by abandoning the
> > reader-institution-end trade model for an author-institution-end
> > publication-charge model that is far more suited to this very anomalous
> > and special form of literature: the refereed research corpus.
> If this comes to pass, I can envisage that the more highly
> prestigious titles (Science, Nature, Cell etc) will demand higher
> publication charges than journals lower down the hierarchy. Indeed,
> it may be that there is a very substantial premium to be accepted
> by the most prestigious titles. One effect of this could be to
> prevent less well-financed research groups from publishing in high-
> prestige journals. They'll be able to access the content of such
> journals for free but will not be able to afford to publish in them.
> Is this how you see things working out? How could this outcome
> be circumvented?
> Frank Norman National Institute for Medical Research
> Acting Librarian The Ridgeway, Mill Hill
> London NW7 1AA, UK
> tel 0208 959 3666 ext 2380 email
> fax 0208 913 8534

Nothing like this will happen; it is based on a misunderstanding of
peer review -- and of what it is that makes the prestigious journals
prestigious, and hence makes authors prefer to submit papers to them
rather than elsewhere:

The prestige of the top journals is based on their quality, which in
turn depends on their quality-control standards: They only accept the
very best papers (and their typically high rejection rates and citation
impact factors reflect this). (They are not "designer labels," for the
patina of which a "consumer" is willing to pay more!)

The way high standards of quality are maintained is through rigorous
peer review: One cannot BUY success in that process; authors must EARN
it (by doing high quality work). Otherwise the prestigious journals
would simply lose their prestige (and be replaced by other, more
rigorously refereed journals, that recaptured their standards, and
THEREBY the best papers [no, they will not LOWER their charges to
capture to higher-prestige authors either! this sort of market-thinking
is all based on the wrong, old, reader/consumer-end model: or, to put
it another way, the "competition" in this highly anomalous, nontrade,
research literature is for high-quality papers, not for author-dollars.]).

On the contrary, it is much lower down in the peer review hierarchy, as
one approaches the vanity press, that some abuse of the author-end
system is conceivable: Authors may try to buy their way into the pages
of low-quality journals when they have failed to earn their way into
the high-quality ones. But, frankly, I don't find this at all
worrisome! Vanity publications are apparent to everyone; they wear the
result (low quality) on their sleeves (and their contents, their
authorships, their rejection rates and their impact factors); and such
journals already exist today, where the "subsidy" currently comes on
the reader-institution-end rather than the author-institution-end --
everyone knows which ones they are, and that "caveat emptor" prevails
when it comes to deciding whether to read them or rely on what they

The costs of submitting to the high-quality journals will be close to
the true costs of implementing peer review, for that is all it will
involve (and the peers do not request or receive remuneration; they
referee according to the Golden Rule: it is only the IMPLEMENTATION of
the refereeing that incurs some cost); it is the vanity press that may
have to bribe referees (at the author's cost).

(Unaffiliated authors, with no institution to fund them out of annual
windfall S/L/P-cancelation savings and no funding agency to cover the
minuscule publication costs can be funded from collective publication
slush funds established for this purpose at the journal or suprajournal
level. So this too should not detain us.)

Let me close with two further points:

(1) It is inadvisable to try to second-guess outcomes in this way; it
is all too hypothetical, and for everything we think of in advance,
there will no doubt be several unexpected contingencies we didn't think
of. This isolated single-variable second-guessing simply helps entrench
the status quo, because so many people have vested interests in
retaining it -- or merely prefer to do and change nothing.

So forget about author-end page charges! They will sort themselves out.
The ONLY salient thing at this moment is the absolutely unambiguous
desideratum that all authors should self-archive their refereed papers
NOW and ensure that no copyright agreement ventures to block that
capability. That will effectively free the journal literature. The rest
will take care of itself.

(2) There is another Harnad, not myself, but a mathematical physicist
by the name of John Harnad <> (and the one who
first drew my attention to the Ginsparg Archive way back in the early
'90's). J. Harnad has some further recommendations on the subject of
referee answerability and compensation: He recommends that (a) all
referees should be paid to referee papers; (b) payment for a rejected
paper should be minimal (say, $200), but payment for an accepted paper
should be commensurate with the effort of seeing it through the
successive revisions (say, $2000) to successful publication; and, to
avoid the potential abuse discussed above, (c) if a paper is accepted,
the name of the accepting referee(s) should be co-published with it, to
share the responsibility, praise or blame. He feels this would raise
the quality of the refereeing and make the entire process much more
answerable, hence effective, than it is now.

Obviously this proposal is compatible with the transition from
reader-institution-end payment to author-institution-end payment,
but it is an as yet untested peer-review reform proposal; all such
reform proposals need to be tested empirically and practically before
being implemented on any scale. Hence it should not detain us on the
road to freeing the CURRENT refereed literature, such as it is.

(I also think that there is not enough money in the world to pay fairly
for the precious time that referees steal from their own research in
order to do the mostly thankless task of peer review; hence the Golden
Rule is probably the only one we can continue to rely on! SUBMISSION
charges, creditable toward PUBLICATION charges should the paper be
accepted, may not be a bad idea to levy on authors, though, with or
without referee payment, for it to might help raise submission
standards and even revision conscientiousness, hence perhaps even
lightening some of the burden on the work-horse referees; but this too
would need pre-testing.)

Stevan Harnad
Professor of Cognitive Science
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 2380 592-582
Computer Science fax: +44 2380 592-865
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
Received on Wed Feb 10 1999 - 19:17:43 GMT

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