Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Essence of academic publishing

Let me start with a bit of context, all of which will be known, understood and widely discussed. The blame of unaffordability of the ever-increasing amount of scholarly literature, be it because of high subscription prices or article processing fees for ‘gold’ open access, is often laid at the door of the publishers.

The blame, however, should be on the academic preoccupation with the imperative of publisher-mediated prepublication peer review (PPR).

Of course, publishers, subscription-based ones as well as open access outfits, have a business which depends to a very large degree on being the organisers of PPR and few of them would like to see the imperative disappear. The ‘need’ – real or perceived – for publisher-mediated PPR in the academic ecosystem is the main raison d’être of most publishers. And it is responsible for most of their costs (personnel costs), even though it is actually carried out by academics and not publishers. The technical costs of publishing are but a fraction of that, at least the cost of electronic publishing (print and its distribution are quite expensive, but to be seen as an optional service and not as part of the essence of academic publishing).

Despite it being the imperative in Academia, publisher-mediated PPR has flaws, to say the least. Among causes for deep concern are its anonymity and general lack of transparency, highly variable quality, and the unrealistic expectations of what peer review can possibly deliver in the first place. The increasing amount of journal articles being submitted is making the process of finding appropriate reviewers not easier, either.

Originally, PPR was a perfectly rational approach to ensuring that scarce resources were not spent on the expensive business of printing and distributing paper copies of articles that were indeed not deemed to be worth that expense. Unfortunately, the rather subjective judgment needed for that approach led to unwelcome side effects, such as negative results not being published. In the era of electronic communication, with its very low marginal costs of dissemination, prepublication filtering seems anachronistic. Of course, initial technical costs of publishing each article remain, but the amounts involved are but a fraction of the costs per article of the traditional print-based system, and an even smaller fraction of the average revenues per article many publishers make.

Now, with the publishers’ argument of avoiding excessive costs of publishing largely gone, PPR is often presented as some sort of quality filter, protecting readers against unintentionally spending their valuable time and effort on unworthy literature. Researchers must be a naïve lot, given the protection they seem to need. The upshot of PPR seems to be that anything that is peer reviewed before publication, and does get through the gates, is to be regarded as proper, worthwhile, and relevant material. But is it? Can it be taken as read that everything in peer-reviewed publications is beyond doubt? Should a researcher be reassured by the fact that it has passed a number of filters that purport to keep scientific ‘rubbish’ out?

Of course they should. These filtering mechanisms are there for a reason. They diminish the need for critical thinking. Researchers should just believe what they read in ‘approved’ literature. They shouldn’t just question everything.

Or are these the wrong answers?

Isn’t it time that academics who are relying on PPR ‘quality’ filters – and let us hope it’s a minority of them – should stop believing at face value what is being presented in the ‘properly peer-reviewed and approved’ literature, and go back to the critical stance that is the hallmark of a true scientist: “why should I believe these results or these assertions?” The fact that an article is peer-reviewed in no way absolves researchers of applying professional skepticism to whatever they are reading. Further review, post-publication, remains necessary. It’s part of the fundamentals of the scientific method.

So, what about this: a system in which authors discuss, in-depth and critically, their manuscripts with a few people who they can identify and accept as their peers. And then ask those people to put their name to the manuscript as ‘endorsers’. As long as some reasonable safeguards are in place that endorsers are genuine, serious and without undeclared conflicts of interest (e.g. they shouldn’t be recent colleagues at the same institution as the author, or be involved in the same collaborative project, or have been a co-author in, say, the last five years), the value of this kind of peer-review – author-mediated PPR, if you wish – is unlikely to be any less than publisher-mediated PPR. In fact, it’s likely to offer more value, if only due to transparency and to the expected reduction in the cost of publishing. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the peer-endorsers should agree with all of the content of the articles they endorse. They merely endorse its publication. Steve Pettifer of the University of Manchester once presented a perfect example of this. He showed a quote from Alan Singleton about a peer reviewer’s report[1]:

"This is a remarkable result – in fact, I don’t believe it. However, I have examined the paper and can find no fault in the author’s methods and results. Thus I believe it should be published so that others may assess it and the conclusions and/or repeat the experiment to see whether the same results are achieved."

An author-mediated PPR-ed manuscript could subsequently be properly published, i.e. put in a few robust, preservation-proof formats, properly encoded with Unicode characters, uniquely identified and identifiable, time-stamped, citable in any reference format, suitable for human- and machine-reading, data extraction, reuse, deposit in open repositories, printing, and everything else that one might expect of a professionally produced publication, including a facility for post-publication commenting and review. That will cost, of course, but it will be a fraction of the current costs of publication, be they paid for via subscriptions, article processing charges, or subsidies. Good for the affordability of open access publishing for minimally funded authors, e.g. in the social sciences and humanities, and for the publication of negative results that, though very useful, hardly get a chance in the current system.

Comments welcome.

Jan Velterop

[1] Singleton, A. The Pain Of Rejection, Learned Publishing, 24:162–163