Would Gold OA Publishing Fees Compromise Peer-Reviewed Journal Quality?

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Sun, 8 Jun 2008 09:26:38 -0400

It is likely that some fee-based Gold OA journals today (while Gold OA
publishing is the minority route, in competition with conventional
subscription-based publishing, rather than universal) are in some
cases compromising the rigor of peer review and hence the quality of
the article and journal. However, journals have always differed in
quality and rigor of peer review, and researchers have always known
which were the high and low quality journals, based on the journals'
(open!) track-records for quality.

If and when Gold OA publishing should ever becomes universal (for
example, if and when universal Green OA self-archiving should ever put
an end to the demand for the subscription version, thereby making
subscriptions unsustainable and forcing a conversion to fee-based Gold
OA publishing) then the very same research community standards and
practices that today favor those subscription journals who have the
track records for the highest quality standards will continue to
ensure the same standards for the highest quality journals: The
high-quality authors will still want to publish in high-quality rather
than low-quality journals, and journals will still need to strive to
generate track-records as high-quality journals -- not just (1) in
order to attract the high-quality authors and work, but (2) in order
to retain the high-quality peer-reviewers (who, after all, do their
work voluntarily, not for a fee, and not in order to generate journal
revenue, and who will not referee if their advice is ignored for the
sake of generating more journal revenue, making journal quality low)
as well as (3) in order to retain users (who, although they no longer
need to subscribe in order to access the journal, will still be
influenced by the quality of the journal in what they choose to access
and use). Usage will in turn be (4) openly tracked by rich OA impact
metrics, which will complement peer perceptions of the journal's (and
author's) track record for quality. This will again influence author
choice of journals.

So, in sum: Some authors today no dount try to buy their way into
fee-based Gold OA journals, and some Gold OA journals short on authors
no doubt lower their quality standards to win authors. But something
very similar is already true of the lower-end subscription=based
journals that prevail today, and this will continue to be true of
lower-end journals if and when Gold OA becomes universal. The demand
for quality, however, (by [some] authors, referees and users) will
ensure that the existing journal quality hierarchy continues to exist,
regardless of the cost-recovery model (whether user-institution
subscription fees or author-institution peer-review fees).

Moreover, the author, user and institutional demand for the canonical
print edition is still strong today, and unlikely to be made
unsustainable by authors' free final, refereed drafts any time soon,
even as Green OA mandates gradually make them universal. And there are
already, among Gold OA journals, high-end journals like the PLoS
journals, that are maintaining the highest peer-review standards
despite the fact that they need paying authors. So quality still
trumps price, for authors as well as publishers, on the high-quality
end. Not to mention that as more and more of traditional publishing
functions (access-provision, archiving) are offloaded onto the growing
worldwide network of Green OA Institutional Repositories, the price of
publishing will shrink. (I think the cost of peer review alone will be
about $200, especially if a submission fee of, say, $50, creditable
toward the publishing fee if the paper is accepted, is levied on all
submissions, to discourage low-probability nuisance submissions and to
distribute the costs of peer review across all submissions, rejected
as well as accepted.)

(I also think that the idea of paying referees for their services
(though it may have a few things to recommend it) is a nonstarter,
especially at this historic point. It would (i) raise rather than
lower publication costs; the payment (ii) could never be made high
enough to really compensate referees' for their time and efforts; and
referee payment too is (iii) open to abuse: If authors will pay to
publish lower quality work, and journals will lower standards to get
those author payments, then referees can certainly lower their
standards to get those referee payments too! And that's true even if
referee names are made publicly known, just as author-names and
journal-names a publicly known) In short, universal OA, and the
negligibly low costs of implementing classical peer review, would moot
all that.)

Stevan Harnad
Received on Sun Jun 08 2008 - 14:27:37 BST

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