Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 2 Feb 2000 13:58:37 +0000

> From: [anonymous]
> Peer review is very expensive. To do a good job of
> peer review takes substantial amounts of time and effort, from
> secretaries who handle the manuscripts, reviewers who go over them, and
> editors who must make the decisions.

This is certainly true, and all of the essential costs of peer review
(let us call the process "Quality Control and Certification," QC/C)
will have to continue being paid, according to the model I have
proposed (although I have to point out that the item "reviewers who go
over them" is not part of the budget, as peers referee for free). The
question is: How much are those essential QC/C costs currently, when
peer review is hybrid, paper/post and online, and how much will they be
when peer review is entirely online (as it is for more and more
journals, including my own)?

Whatever those QC/C costs are, they MUST continue to be covered. The
question is: Should they continue to be covered by
reader-institution-end Subscription/Site-License/Pay-Per-View (S/L/P)
fees (which are ACCESS-BARRIERS) as they are currently, or is there
another, barrier-free way? For if QC/C costs continue to be paid via
S/L/P access tolls, then the literature cannot be made free for all
online, for freeing it online would make those S/L/P revenue sources
vanish, causing the refereed journal system to collapse.

So the question we are addressing is: How much are those QC/C costs, and
is there any way to recover them, other than access-blocking S/L/P

There has been extensive discussion of how much the QC/C costs are now
(and how much they will be when QC/C is online-only), but let us not
get into that here (see Odlyzko 1998 and the American Scientist Forum
Archives on the "2.0K vs. 0.2K" thread) and agree only that they can
only be LESS (and those with experience agree they will be considerably
less) per published article than the current TOTAL price of a published
article (via S/L/P). The reason is that currently the published articles
are being sold as a PRODUCT, whereas QC/C is only a SERVICE that goes
into the creating of that product.

So the arithmetic goes as follows. Let us say that $XXX is the total
revenue received by journal publishers per article via S/L/P, by
selling it as a product; most of this revenue comes from
reader-institutional S/L/P tolls. The way to pay for the SERVICE of QC/C
alone, then, is for all S/L/P expenditures by the reader institutions to
cease, returning to the institutions all of their $XXX, and then
paying for whatever portion of that the essential QC/C costs amount to
-- let's call that $YYY -- out of the windfall savings, at the
author-institution end.

We need only note that $YYY < $XXX (indeed, probably $YYY << $XXX) to
see that the author-institution-end model (which provides free access
for all) is as preferable to the reader-institution-end model (which
restricts access to those individuals/institutions who can/will pay the
S/L/P tolls) as a research literature free for all is preferable to the
current one, with the access barriers of financial firewalls in place.

I need only add that, just as peers referee for free, authors give
their papers away for free. Their motivation is to have their
peer-reviewed findings as widely accessible as possible; that is what
their research impact depends on. They have no stake in toll-booths;
indeed, their stake in them is negative. So if the access-barriers that
were necessary in the Gutenberg era so that papers could be published at
all are no longer necessary in the PostGutenberg in which authors can
self-archive their papers in public Open Archives, then if authors
continue to be prevented from doing this, they will sooner or later
want to know the reason why.

> Saying this can all be handled less expensively electronically is (A)
> not true, at least in some image-intensive biological journals,
> manuscripts are often accompanied by 100-300 Mb of digital image files;

What is the problem with 100-300 Mb image files? The pornographic
traffic on the Net is doing fine with much bigger files.

> and (B) not practical for authors who do not use digital files for images;

All images can be digitized and compressed; fewer and fewer authors are
pre-digital any more. And for those who are, hard copy is still an
option. Surely these minoritarian image-related considerations are not
a justification for continuing to hold the research literature hostage
to S/L/P (and its embargos) any longer.

> and (C) still does not eliminate a substantial component of the cost.
> The cost of the peer review for the journal whose publication committee
> I sit on is about $500 per paper.

So be it. Let $YYY = $500. Total revenue per article is $XXX from S/L/P.
Let all S/L/P be cancelled and let the author-institution cover the $500
per article out of the savings.

(I am not of course advocating instant termination of S/L/P. As long as
there is still demand for paper, it can still be sold; as long as the
journal can continue to sell its proprietary online version, that can
continue to be sold too. But meanwhile, authors should not be prevented
from self-archiving online for free. Then, when the free version starts
to undercut the S/L/P revenue, journal publishers can begin down-sizing
until they rescale to their stable new (and essential) niche in the
PostGutenberg Galaxy, which is as QC/C service providers.)

> Currently, this is paid by libraries that subscribe to journals, and
> which cover their costs. If information is made available, on-line,
> immediately upon publication, or before, there would be little reason
> for anyone to pay to subscribe to these journals. Deprived of their
> income stream, there would be no way to support the costs of peer
> review.

The first two sentences are correct.The third, as I have tried to show
above, certainly is not.

> Some, like Harold Varmus, argue that authors should pay this.
> That puts the onus on the wrong person. Why should the author, who
> contributes the information, also pay to have it disseminated? This
> cost should be borne by the readers.

The individual author and individual reader are the wrong unit of
reckoning here, and hence red herrings. It is the reader-institution
and the author-institution that are at issue. Authors are not to pay
QC/C costs out of their pockets. Their institutions pay them out of a
portion of their annual S/L/P savings. (And in this continuing
publish-or-perish world, everyone knows that faculty publications
and research impact are money in the bank for universities, insofar as
research funding income and other productivity and impact measures are
concerned, whereas S/L/P access barriers BLOCK research impact.)

I have replied extensively to critiques of the Varmus proposal
(although I have myself pointed out some minor but readily remediable
problems with it as well): (passim)

> Varmus says the NIH pays in either
> case, so why not put the burden on the worker, rather than the reader.
> But the NIH does not cover all research, and placing high economic
> barriers on publication in peer reviewed journals would be unfair to
> authors who do not enjoy that amount of support, or are in countries
> where such funds are not readily available.

In countries where funds are short, the much larger S/L/P costs are the
problem (denying access to the literature). Remember that $XXX > $YYY.
And again, as with images, minoritarian, institutionless authors who
cannot afford QC/C costs are much more sensibly treated with a slush
fund tagged onto the $YYY of everyone else than as grounds for
continuing to hold the entire literature hostage to S/L/P.

> So, we get back to the eternal question: who pays? Your view of
> publication, to maintain a peer review system, would incur all the
> costs to the worker, and all the benefits to the reader, who does
> nothing. Any economist seeing this proposal would have to assume that
> the person writing it was insane.

For an economist's views, see the discussion threads in the American
Scientist Forum (1999) by Hal Varian.


As I said, the individual reader and individual author are completely
inappropriate units of reckoning in this anomalous literature: the
giveaway research journal literature. The INSTITUTION is the right unit
of reckoning, and it is the same one in both cases. (It is not
coincidental that most mainstream journal publishers reckon their
break-even points in terms of institutional subscriptions alone.)

(Let us not quibble about net provider vs. net consumer institutions:
that too has been discussed in the pages of American Scientist Forum;
with a little imagination, it is clear how to distribute the burden
equitably. Again, it is relevant that the greater the disparity between
$XXX and $YYY, the bigger the buffer and safety margin for minor
inequities like these.)

> There is no free lunch. Given that this is the case, I would propose
> that those who eat, pay, not the cooks.

Referees and authors have always made their contribution for free in
this anomalous literature, so unlike the trade literature (of books and
magazines), and they always will. No one is asking them to add insult to
injury by PAYING to give away their own products and services.

But if the authors and referees are the cooks here, what are the
publishers? They used to be the catering service, testing to make sure
the food met culinary standards, and then delivering the finished
product for a fee, to institutional cafeterias. Let institutions
retain those fees, and pay the caterer only for certifying that the
food has met the culinary standards (the cooks work for them

It should be clear that it is the give-away goods and services on the
part of the authors and referees that make this "industry" so
anomalous, and makes analogies like "free lunch" so irrelevant.

The only relevant new development is that public self-archiving online
in Open Archives now makes it possible for the "cooks" to give away their
products (as they always have done) on a much grander scale, freed of
the access tolls for which there is no longer any need, hence
justification -- to the eternal benefit of scientists, science, and
hence all of humanity.

References follow below.

Best wishes,

Stevan Harnad

Prof. Stevan Harnad
Editor, Psycoloquy phone: +44 23-80 592-582
Department of Electronics & fax: +44 23-80 593-281
Computer Science
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton
SO17 1BJ UNITED KINGDOM news:sci.psychology.journals.psycoloquy
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NOTE: A complete archive of this ongoing discussion of "Freeing the
Refereed Journal Literature Through Online Self-Archiving" is available
at the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99):


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Harnad, S. (1998g) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature [online]
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Harnad, S. (1999b) Free at Last: The Future of Peer-Reviewed Journals.
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Light, P., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. & Harnad, S. (2000) Up for Debate:
CMC as a support for course related discussion in a campus
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Odlyzko, A.M. (1998) The economics of electronic journals. In: Ekman R.
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Received on Mon Jan 24 2000 - 19:17:43 GMT

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