Knowledge slavery

29 01 2012

manaclesAnother workshop; another productive week.

As many readers will know, I’ve spent the last week in the mountains north of Madrid working on a series of conservation ecology papers with host Miguel Araújo (of the Integrative Biology and Global Change Group at the Spanish National Museum of Natural Sciences), my lab colleagues, Barry Brook, Damien Fordham and Salvador Herrando-Pérez, and Miguel’s post-doc, Regan Early.

Let me tell you, staying in the craggy granite Sierra de Guadarrama mountains at a well-known health spa eating explosively flavourful Spanish food and drinking an immodest selection of the region’s delicious wines, is particularly conducive to scientific productivity (yes, I AM a jammy tart). Although unlikely to be followed by many (even if they have the means), I highly recommend the experience for those suffering from writer’s block.

But this post isn’t about the scenery, food, wine, hydrothermal treatment or even the content of the workshop at all (I just prefaced it as such to gloat); it’s about a particularly sore point for me and hundreds of thousands of other scientists the world over – our slavery to the scientific publishing industry.

And ‘slavery’ is definitely the most appropriate term here, for how else would you describe a business where the product is produced by others for free1 (scientific results), is assessed for quality by others for free (reviewing), is commissioned, overviewed and selected by yet others for free (editing), and then sold back to the very same scientists and the rest of the world’s consumers at exorbitant prices.

This isn’t just a whinge about a specialised and economically irrelevant sector of the economy, we’re talking about an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In fact, Elsevier (agreed by many to be the leader in the greed-pack – see how some scientists are staging their protest; also here) made US$1.1 billion in 2010!

Apart from rectifying some dodgy business practices, I thought we were well and truly enslaved to this model because of the one thing science must uphold beyond all else – integrity. Any other model involving payment for services would, I thought, jeopardise the quest for subjectivity reduction (a.k.a. objectivity2). Imagine if we had to sell our science to the highest bidder – specialist-interest groups could conceivably highjack the system to their advantage (sound like American politics at all?). I’d certainly give up the baton if that ever happened.

But after discussing the issue this week in between bouts of R programming, Miguel mentioned an idea of his3 that I think has immense merit. Sure, there are plenty of alternative models out there to credit reviews in a meaningful way (e.g., The Peerage of Science experiment), but none seem to get at the core of the issue. How do we get remunerated for our time, effort and expertise without sacrificing our scientific integrity?

Miguel’s answer3 is the simplest and most elegant of them all.

Suppose for moment that ALL journals paid a standard sum for each review they commissioned. Let’s say the price was something in the vicinity of €100 (an amount that Miguel and apparently many others deemed would be a reasonable request for a review – I concur). Now, I get something like 2-3 review requests per week, and I refuse probably 80 % of them for time-commitment reasons. So let’s say I agree to do 20 reviews per year. Under Miguel’s modified scheme, I’d earn an extra €2000 (~ AU$2484) per year. Not a lot, but it’s certainly enough to take my wife out to dinner a few more times than usual, perhaps buy some nice wine, or even (partially) finance a trip to Spain! The point is that I wouldn’t be getting rich, but I’d feel remunerated for my hard work.

Now let’s look at it from the perspective of the journal. An average journal in ecology probably publishes between 10-20 papers per issue, with 6-12 issues per year. Let’s go with an average of 15 × 8 = 120 papers per year. Of course, the journal would have to pay for the reviews for rejected papers too, so let’s use a rather conservative 50 % rejection rate4 to make our point. At an average of 2 reviews per paper, that’s 240 × 2 × €100 = €48,000 paid to reviewers each year per journal. For the big scientific publishing companies, let’s say they manage about 2000 journals each (Elsevier has 2632, Wiley has 1500 and Springer has 2400) – that’s €96,000,000 per year. That seems like a whopping number, but when put into perspective, it’s only about 10% of the $1.1 billion Elsevier earned in 2010.

I think profiteering from slavery is wrong (call me a crazy, liberal do-gooder), so I’d feel perfectly justified in asking for such a modest proportion of these over-the-top profits for the work I now do for free.

There are other advantages to such a scheme beyond the improved economic fairness. As an editor, I’d make damn sure I chose REALLY GOOD reviewers if the journal I was editing had to pay €100 a pop for each review. As a reviewer, I’d probably provide a much more in-depth, insightful review if I was getting paid, and I’d bloody well do it in time (or probably have to forfeit my fee). You could also have a review scoring system within each journal such that those reviewers who consistenly provided high-quality reviews would get solicited more often, thus gaining a little more than the lazier and less-dedicated types.

It’s time we had a change.

CJA Bradshaw

1Believe it or not, but many journals (mainly American ones – see an example here) actually CHARGE scientists for the ‘privilege’ of publishing in them. F$%#ing insane.

2Humans can only ever pursue subjectivity reduction because absolute objectivity is beyond our capacity. Errare humanum est.

3Miguel isn’t really the progenitor of the idea of paying for reviews – see a paper by Christopher Lortie here on the subject.

4Remember, we’re not counting the papers that were rejected by the Editor without review.


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9 responses

29 01 2012
Reuben Clements

I believe this hegemony impacts more than just the wallets and morale of scientists – publishers hinder environmental conservation efforts!

Local libraries in developing countries generally cannot afford to pay exorbitant subscription fees for conservation journals –> academics and students in these countries continue to be underexposed to contemporary conservation research issues and techniques -> their capacity to conduct conservation research of sufficient quality and applicability to real-world conservation issues, as well as their aptitude to review conservation papers as peers does not improve –> their academic drive (and consequently) chances of career progression diminish in institutions that are increasingly demanding more ISI impact factor papers to boost university rankings –> stagnating academics have little incentive to mould passionate students and invest less resources (by choice or by the fact they cannot secure big research grants) to equip students with relevant skill sets –> pressing local conservation issues do not get addressed by a shrinking pool of quality local academics who can otherwise be powerful environmental lobbyists (compared to foreign scientists working on local conservation issues) –> the environment gets screwed faster and harder!

29 01 2012
Duncan Mackay

Yes, I’ve often wondered about the limits of my altruism when I’ve been chivvied and nagged by a journal editor about a “late” review! Cash-strapped universities routinely offer academic reviewers of higher degree theses a modest fee for their reviewing services, but highly profitable publishing houses seem unable to offer the same largesse!
Here’s another take on the academic publishing industry.
http://www.monbiot.com/2011/08/29/the-lairds-of-learning/

31 01 2012
CJAB

Interestingly, an average thesis of about 4-6 chapters usually is usually examined with an honorarium of about $350-600, so it matches almost exactly with the €100/review idea above.

30 01 2012
Bernard

This raises additional queries. One, it does not really solve the problem. My major issues with the system is that it scientist (and here comes a big) mainly use public funds to do science, then the publication houses sell it back to them again (which some argue should be free). Paying reviewers makes me happy, but does it address that inequality (well, should that be addressed?). Two, what about the new guys? I was ecstatic the first time a journal approached me to do a review, it felt as if NOW I was a scientist, and it’s such a critical part of the job. But if we add money to the process, can we really ensure that new scientists have equal opportunity to get into the system?

31 01 2012
CJAB

On your first point, hardly any grants (especially in Australia) provide any funding whatsoever for publication costs, and NONE fund reviewing time. We’re expected to do all that (without pay) in addition to the generation of data, analysis and write-up.

Second, as a PhD/post-doc supervisor, reviewer and editor, I regularly suggest my PhD/post-doc students as alternative reviewers when I don’t have time. As an editor, many people I ask to review do exactly the same. I would even be MORE inclined to do this if a small payment was involved, because no one appreciates a little extra cash than a PhD student.

7 02 2012
Marjorie

The economics described here are flawed, from lack of familiarity with the industry you purport to dissect.

The concept that publishers have to be destroyed to give authors the privilege of paying to publish is also flawed. Publishers are trying to change as quickly as they can, and would welcome an opportunity to collaborate on that effort, in particular as is entails a wholesale re-invention of a rather extensive infrastructure.

Open access is quite a different matter from copyright protection. To my knowledge there are no publishers lobbying to prevent open access.

Otherwise fine. Carry on.

13 02 2012
CJAB

Just how is it “flawed”, Marjorie? You provide absolutely no evidence for your claim. I fail to see how divesting some of a publisher’s profits to the very people who make them possible cannot be done. If the model is ‘flawed’, it’s time to change the model!

Publishers are merely trying to reinvent themselves to maintain the strangle-hold on authors.

No publishers trying to prevent open access? Please. Have a look at this and this.

7 02 2012
6 09 2013
Mike Fowler

It (paying reviewers) is a really interesting point for discussion. There’s certainly many extra issues that would need to be addressed. E.g., one negative issue: could we ensure that reviewers wouldn’t game the system by insisting manuscripts need extra rounds of revision and re-review?

It’s been suggested elsewhere (maybe even by me, too lazybusy to check, sorry) that such a system could set up academic castes, where some people only spend their time reviewing, rather than take an active part in producing primary research, and vice-versa. I’m not convinced that’s a healthy division.

Personally, I don’t think I need to be paid extra for reviewing. I’m already paid to do research (& teaching & admin & professional development) ~35 hours a week, and I consider reviewing to fall under the research and professional development time. If I do it on my own time, that’s a different question. But with 2 young kids, there is no such thing as ‘my own time’ any more ;)

As an editor, I’d make damn sure I chose REALLY GOOD reviewers if the journal I was editing had to pay €100 a pop for each review. As a reviewer, I’d probably provide a much more in-depth, insightful review if I was getting paid, and I’d bloody well do it in time (or probably have to forfeit my fee).

In terms of academic integrity (which you brought up earlier in the post), shouldn’t you be soliciting the best reviewers anyway? And shouldn’t you be writing the best reviews you can without the need of further financial incentives?

A final point: many journals are run by academic societies, with no such thing as profit margins. 10% might not be an important amount for Elsevier (or other major publishing houses) to sacrifice when their profits are in the billions, but having to find an extra 10% to pay reviewerswould send many academic societies into the red. And would you really expect journal subscription prices to be unaffected by the extra cost? OA publishers would also have to increase their fees to cover this, creating further inequalities. Insisting on payment for reviewing could potentially drive more articles and power to the profit making publishing houses. Instead of the current movement to refuse to review for them on moral grounds, we’d have some researchers only accepting to review if invited by journals who offered to pay them for it.

I’m afraid my comment highlights a lot of negatives, but I don’t mean to stifle the discussion – there are definitely positives that can come out of this idea. Finding the right areas to apply them will definitely benefit academia.

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