Re: Scientific publishing is not just about administering peer-review

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Wed, 15 Oct 2003 23:23:44 +0100

On Wed, 15 Oct 2003, Etienne Joly wrote:

> 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
>sh> The quality of a journal depends on the quality of its submissions
>sh> and the rigor and selectivity of its peer review. Authors give
>sh> their papers for free; referees referee for free. The only cost is
>sh> administering the peer-review service. The highest-end estimate for
>sh> 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.

The quoted passage should have stated "the only *essential* cost", for
we are certainly not down to the bare essentials yet, and perhaps only
will be when open access has prevailed.

    The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)

But let me agree with Etienne Joly at least to the extent that it is an
empirical question whether or not (i) editing will prove to be part of
the essentials.

As to (ii), assuming that Etienne is not referring to providing search
engines as among the essential functions of research journal publication,
I think he is simply referring here, redundantly (hence double-counting)
to peer-review itself, the one essential that (I agree) is certain. For it
is the journal-name tag, attesting to the fact that it was that journal
-- with its established track-record for peer-review quality standards
and selectivity and its citation impact factor -- that accepted the
research in question for publication. *That* is the
navigation/selection/filtration guide par excellence, I agree. But it
is just peer review (plus perhaps whatever essential value, if any,
editing adds).

> 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.

I can't quite follow this: implementing peer review -- and the cost of
implementing peer review, since referees referee for free -- includes
the editorial selection, based on the reviews. That is undisputed. The
value added by editing itself (substantive editing? copy-editing?) is
an empirical question that will only be sorted out if we put refereed,
accepted, final drafts ("vanilla postprints") into competition with
further edited drafts, for their added-value.

It might (or might not) turn out that editing does add enough further
value to warrant cranking up the price per article somewhat from $500
(how much?). But that was the point made in the preceding paragraph. What
further point is being made here, over and above what was already made
in the first paragraph, above?

> 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.

Which journals? And what more do they do? And how much more does it
cost? (And please don't forget to separate the costs of the editing from
the copy-editing, and both of those from any markup costs, PDF
generation, dissemination, storage, access-provision, and of course any
paper-associated costs. They should not be wrapped into the extra cost
of the editing.)

> 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)

We have just changed the subject from open access (to the peer reviewed
research literature, such as it is), to (untested) peer-review reform

    The Invisible Hand of Peer Review.

    Peer Review Reform Hypothesis-Testing

    A Note of Caution About "Reforming the System"

    Self-Selected Vetting vs. Peer Review: Supplement or Substitute?

> 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.

I certainly agree that researchers don't yet understand the importance
of diffusing their results as broadly as possible! But that just means
they don't yet understand the importance of open access!

We're working on providing the empirical data and analysis that will
help them understand. I have likened it to horses and water myself, but
we must not give up on the intelligence of our fellow-researchers too

There is no either/or with publishing in Nature/Science (or any journal)
versus self-archiving. Every author can do both. And the impact of
their article will only be enhanced. Not is there any either/or with
self-archiving unrefereed preprints versus updating them once the
refereeing and revision are done.

> 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).

None of the above is correct, I am afraid! It does not require specific
hardware, it *is* completely in the reach of every researcher -- and
even for the researcher who is too busy, tired, old or timorous to try
it, institutions can -- and do -- provide digital librarians to perform
the few keystrokes for them, e.g.:

    "Let Us Archive It For You!"

> 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

Hypothesis non fingo! The dramatic benefits of open-access are amply
demonstrated, and they have been demonstrated mostly by self-archiving!
But even in the field where systematic self-archiving has been going
on the longest, physics, there is not yet any sign that it generates
journal cancellations.

I am not saying it never will! I am just refraining from speculation,
and speaking only about what is actual, current, certain, feasible,
demonstrated, and urgent: self-archiving will provide immediate open
access, and that in turn will provide greatly enhanced research impact.

What happens next, if anything, is just a matter of speculation. Will
universal open access generate toll-access journal cancellations? I
think so, but that's just a guess. If it does, what will happen next? My
guess is that journals will cost-cut and down-size to the essentials,
jettisoning first paper, then PDF-generation and provision, offloading
that, and access-provision and storage, onto the worldwide network
of open-access archives. (Will editing and copy-editing go too? Who
knows?) But peer-review, and any other essentials will stay. And *then* (I
am still speculating, or rather counter-speculating, because you started
it!) is the time to make the transition to open-access publishing:
When the institutional tolls are cancelled and the resulting annual
institutional windfall savings are there to pay the much-reduced costs of
the essentials at the research-output end, instead of the research-input
end, as in the toll system.

All speculation, though, and premature. There are right now 23,500
toll-access journals, doing fine, and about 500 open-access journals,
struggling to survive in a world not accustomed to paying author
charges, and not sure why, or what to pay it with. I am among those
who long ago proposed that author/institution-end payment will be
the eventual stable outcome, as open-access prevails; but now, when
open-access is still far from prevailing, author/institution charges
may be premature, and deterrents. Evidence from this comes from a recent
"two steps forward, one step back" that has taken place, with PLoS
launching as a new open-access journal, and both JHEP and BMJ reverting
from open-access to toll-access.

It's regrettable, but not irreversible, again. If PLoS and BMC and other
successful open-access publishers manage to persuade research-funding
agencies to cover the costs of open-access publishing, JHEP and BMJ
might be able to go open-access again. In the meanwhile, though, it is
reassuring -- and in fact very revealing -- to note that the *contents*
of JHEP remain open-access through all these transformations, because
all of their authors self-archive! This means that it was possible for a
a pure open-access journal, *born* open-access, and with a huge impact
factor, to revert to toll-access status to cover its costs without any
evidence of the disaster your own speculative scenario was predicting!

Stevan Harnad

NOTE: A complete archive of the ongoing discussion of providing open
access to the peer-reviewed research literature online is available at
the American Scientist September Forum (98 & 99 & 00 & 01 & 02 & 03):

Discussion can be posted to:
Received on Wed Oct 15 2003 - 23:23:44 BST

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