Another 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 $1.1 billion Elsevier earned in 2010.
I think profiteering from slavery is wrong (call me a crazy, liberal do-gooder), so I’d feel perfectly justified in asking for such a modest proportion of these over-the-top profits for the work I now do for free.
There are other advantages to such a scheme beyond the improved economic fairness. As an editor, I’d make damn sure I chose REALLY GOOD reviewers if the journal I was editing had to pay €100 a pop for each review. As a reviewer, I’d probably provide a much more in-depth, insightful review if I was getting paid, and I’d bloody well do it in time (or probably have to forfeit my fee). You could also have a review scoring system within each journal such that those reviewers who consistenly provided high-quality reviews would get solicited more often, thus gaining a little more than the lazier and less-dedicated types.
It’s time we had a change.
1Believe it or not, but many journals (mainly American ones – see an example here) actually CHARGE scientists for the ‘privilege’ of publishing in them. F$%#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.