Scientific publishing is not just about administering peer-review

From: Etienne Joly <>
Date: Wed, 15 Oct 2003 18:29:44 +0200

This message is in reaction to the stream of postings by Steven Harnad,
and more specifically to the latest one, dated 11 October, stating that

> The quality of a journal depends on the quality of its submissions
> and the rigor and selectivity of its peer review. Authors give
> their papers for free; referees referee for free. The only cost is
> administering the peer-review service. The highest-end estimate for
> the cost of implementing peer review alone has been $500 per paper:

On this subject, I could not disagree more strongly. The process of
scientific publishing has important ACTIVE roles to play in the
diffusion of scientific data to the broadest possible audience. Among
these roles, the two I perceive as particularly crucial are i) editing
of manuscripts and ii) providing scientists with practical means to
sieve through the overwhelming and continuous avalanche of scientific
data and identify what is sufficiently interesting and relevant to
their interests for them to retrieve and read.

It is true that most of the 23,500 toll-access journals that Steve
Harnad is so keen to refer too have been content for many years to
simply 'milk' the scientific community without doing much more than
administering a peer-review process. But high-flying journals do not
simply owe their pride of place to chance or fashion: These journals
are very selective on what they chose to publish, and they usually
apply a thorough editing process to the manuscripts before publishing
them. Both of these processes serve the scientists: Firstly by
selecting a subset of papers that are deemed 'more interesting' (how
biased or arbitrary the selection criteria can be is the matter of
another debate, together with the relevance of impact foactors ...) .
Second, and in my eyes more importantly, professional editing of papers
makes them easier to read.

 From what I know, however, for these journals that do more than just
administer a peer-review process, the cost per paper is well in excess
of the $500 mark. One of the major factors in increasing these costs is
the high rate of rejection.
On this subject, I have previously proposed a novel publication system
whereby papers would be accepted for publication solely on their
scientific soundness, and rated retrospectively :
I believe that such a system would bring both the best value for money
service, and still provide scientists with ways of identifying the more
interesting papers (and claim the recognition from funding bodies and
such likes)

On the subject of self-archiving, I find Steve Harnad's efforts
laudable, but unfortunately I perceive that they may be aiming slightly
off the mark. Firstly, as one says, you can bring a horse to water, but
you cannot make it drink. The fact that self-archiving has really not
taken off despite being available speaks for itself: Scientists do not
necessarily perceive the importance of diffusing their results as
broadly as possible. If they did, personal web pages would be updated
more often than they actually are ! When scientists try to publish in
Nature or Science, it is the notoriety and recognition they seek, much
more than the broad readership.

Also, the proportion of scientists that are computer literate is
actually quite low. And despite what Steve Harnad may affirm on such a
regular basis on various forums, self -archiving as it is available
today requires a lot more than a few keystrokes: It is completely out
of reach for your average bench scientist (and requires specific
hardware, and therefore investment of money as well as time).

But the more serious concern I have with self archiving is that it
simply could not run as a sustainable system. As mentioned above, the
process of publishing manuscripts does unavoidably cost money. Now, let
us say that self archiving was to become the norm, and that virtually
all scientific papers were to become self archived. Scientists and
libraries would no longer need subscriptions to journals, and would
therefore quickly stop paying for those. So journals would be doomed
since they would no longer be profitable operations. And where would
we, scientists, turn to publish our science trough a peer-reviewed
process ? So I am afraid that we have to look for other systems, and I
am personally convinced that charging the authors for the publication
process is the better way to go, and to let paid professionals handle
the diffusion of the publications in an open access mode.

Etienne Joly, Toulouse, France

Etienne Joly |||||||
(pronounce A.T.N.) o o
Bātiment CNRS, \./
CHU Purpan,31300 Toulouse
E-mail: atn <>
Phone:(33) 561 15 84 04
Mobile :(33) 662 24 59 91
FAX: (33) 561 49 90 36 life is a beach
Received on Wed Oct 15 2003 - 17:29:44 BST

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