My full comments for Inside Higher Ed's article "Where Research Meets Profits"

in #sciencelast year (edited)

Below you'll find my full comments I provided to journalist Colleen Flaherty for her story titled "Where Research Meets Profits", published by Inside Higher Ed on October 23, 2019. The article also goes by the longer title of "What happened when a professor was accused of sharing his own work on his website".

screenshot of Inside Higher Ed webpage

Colleen did a great job synthesizing complex issues related to ownership and incentives in scholarly publishing. The quotes from story protagonist William Cunningham as well as commentators Jessica Polka and Philip Cohen are worth reading.

I won't rehash the article. The purpose of this post is to share the comments I provided to Colleen by email. I find it's good to share full comments to journalists for the following reasons:

  1. it helps provide transparency regarding how scientific media operates
  2. it provides interested readers with supplemental material
  3. it helps avoid mischaracterization of my comments
  4. it allows me to publish a blog post with little extra work!

When I provided my responses to Colleen I included the following in my email (feel free to reuse without attribution):

Oftentimes, I publish my full comments to journalists as a blog post after their article is published. If I do this, are you okay with me quoting your questions?

Colleen was glad for me to share my responses, but requested I keep her questions private since they possibly contained some confidential information. My comments follow:

Situations like this arise somewhat frequently. Hopefully, the professor realizes his or her mistake — transferring copyright to a publisher. The solution is open access whereby an open license allows anyone, including the author, to share the article anywhere. Were toll access journals to start paying reviewers, the problem where authors cannot share their own manuscripts would persist.

In my opinion, the more takedown notices the better. Researchers need to become more aware of the detriment of publishing in toll access journals. When scholarly publishers enforce their copyright to its fullest extent, it shows the absurdity of paywalling publicly funded research.

In an optimal system, scholars would be paid everytime they did something useful. Rigorous peer review is certainly useful, and requires serious expertise and focus. But we are so far from this optimal system — where scholars are rewarded for individual contributions ⁠— that we lack good mechanisms for paying reviewers. For example, if I had to choose between paying reviewers and open access, I'd choose the later.

Some journals do pay reviewers, but the payment is often small in comparison to the effort required for a rigorous review. I found this StackExchange by Google. Collabra pays reviewers (news article). Research Square offered me a $50 honorarium for a review, apparently for an unnamed SpringerNature journal. Last time I reviewed for PeerJ, they offered me a $200 APC discount for submitting my review on time. This is less of an incentive because I may not use the APC discount and I don't personally pay APCs, so any savings wouldn't be passed on to me.

Accordingly, with the current system of publishing, I think it's possible to pay reviewers perhaps $100. But the payment is detached from the quality of the review. For payment to really work, it must reflect the rigor of the review. And the cost for a rigorous review is probably on the order of $500 to $1000. Given that the current remuneration of reviewers is $0 and that most reviews are anonymous and never published, you begin to understand why the average quality of reviews is so poor.

Despite the challenges, paying reviewers is worthwhile because it does bring us closer to the optimal system were quality contributions are directly rewarded. However, I don't think it's possible for the current publishing system to reward all relevant contributions. If reviewers are being paid, shouldn't authors be well?

For a previous project (named Project Rephetio), I used a website named Thinklab to invite public discussion of my methods and results. Thinklab is no longer operating, but during its time did pay commentors on the platform. The model was good: the value of comments was assessed by other site users, such that valuable comments were identified and rewarded. But for this to scale, funders need to switch how they allocate resources from issuing large grants to institutions to funding platforms that then reward researchers based on individual contributions of value.

I'm aware of some projects attempting to use blockchains to reward contributions. But I'm skeptical. If we still can't figure out centralized models for assessing the value of individual scholarly contributions, will we really be able to implement decentralized systems where updating the incentive rules requires distributed consensus?

In conclusion, before considering paying reviewers, journals should accomplish the following obvious improvements:

  1. open access where articles are published under an open license
  2. open peer review where peer review reports are published alongside the paper

If a journal has caught up to best practice on those two regards, I think it makes sense for them to evaluate whether paying reviewers increases the timeliness and quality of reviews.


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Hi, thanks for the post! I have included it in my daily Science and technology digest, and you'll receive a 10% share of that post's rewards.

You make good points that every problem can't be solved at once, and that open access should be prioritized before pay for reviewers.

My university (and quite a few other European universities aswell) has recently changed its politics regarding publications. Now, they require us to publish open access and they also pay the fees. I think this is great from two points of view: a) copyright problems with self-archiving are prevented and b) studies that were paid for by tax payers should (imo) be freely accessible by tax payers.

That's great! In the longterm, it will be cheaper for libraries to pay APCs for open access rather than having to subscribe to toll access journals.

What university are you at?

University of Vienna, Austria. Open access is getting a big topic in the EU, with legislators pushing for indroducing respective rules in grant funding etc.
How's the situation in the US in that regard?

But obvisously, this is just one of many problems. Researchers doing peer reviews for free, while their employers (universities) have to pay fees to access the same manuscripts is another huge story on its own.

The situation in the U.S. is improving. Libraries are finally willing to cancel subscriptions, which I think will push journals towards open access business models. IMO this is largely due to Sci-Hub. But also Europe's lead on Plan S has set an example of how funders should be more proactive in requiring access to the outputs they fund.

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