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Taxpayers and Peer Review

One of the most effective soundbites in the public access debates around FRPAA is that taxpayers ought to have ready, easy and immediate access to the results of the research that they’ve paid for.   Seems to be obviously true.

It quickly gets muddy, however, because most people who follow the OA orthodoxy intend it to mean that taxpayers ought to have ready, easy and immediate access to the peer-reviewed articles reporting the results of that research.  After all, the argument goes, they’ve already paid for it, and the subscription system forces them to pay twice! When publishers object that what’s been paid for is the doing of the research, but that taxpayers have not actually paid for the peer review and publication of those articles, they are typically shouted down with the claim that since all of the key elements of peer review and publication are either done for free or are simple anyway, the publishers really don’t add any value and so have no claim to compensation.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any outcry at the notion of paying PLoS (or any other publication-fee based OA publisher) a considerable sum of (usually) taxpayer money to perform those same tasks.  If it’s double-dipping to pay Wiley-Blackwell a subscription fee to get access to the peer-reviewed published articles, why isn’t it double-dipping to pay PLoS or Biomed Central?  Aren’t we still making the taxpayer pay twice?

This is no criticism of PLoS – I’m just looking for some consistency in how we judge these things.  PLoS has proven that a publication-fee based top notch journal can be successfully produced in certain well-funded disciplines.  And I’ve always been persuaded by the logic that says that since peer-reviewed publication is just the final step of a research project, it ought to be funded in the same way that all the rest of the costs of the project are.  That’s the justification for using grant funds to pay the fee.  And that explicitly makes the case that whatever it is that the taxpayers have paid for in doing the research, they have NOT paid for the peer review and publication.

But this also points to the weirdly ambiguous way in which we think about peer review and how it gets done and what its real value is.  It’s not hard to find bloggers and commenters who castigate publishers and repeat, ad nauseum, the refrain that publishers add next to nothing because most editors and peer reviewers are volunteers and who really needs that copyediting stuff anyway.  Do they feel the same way about the PLoS publication fee?  After all, PLoS makes a big deal about their vast network of peer reviewers – they have to rely on a tremendous amount of expert volunteer labor to make PLoS One the largest STM journal in the world (in terms of number of papers published).  And yet, the fact remains that even the $2,900/article fee that they charge for the flagship journals isn’t sufficient for them to break even on those journals alone.   So what are they paying for?

The same sort of sloppy thinking pervades discussions of the place of peer review in the NIH Public Access Policy.  On the one hand, it’s apparent that peer review is tremendously valued – NIH doesn’t want any papers deposited unless they’ve been peer reviewed.  And the expectation is that it is the publishers that perform that task.  So the Policy requires that publishers perform what is clearly considered to be an essential service – but then says there isn’t any need to compensate the publishers for that service, because it’s all done by volunteer labor anyway and isn’t nearly the kind of value-add that the publishers claim it is.

You can’t have it both ways.

NIH could have set up their own peer review mechanism.  After all, if the labor is all volunteer, and the publishers don’t really add anything of value to the process, why deal with them at all?  How hard can it be?  Indeed, in the original E-Biomed proposal that Varmus floated over a decade ago, he envisioned a peer review mechanism at NIH that would enable investigators to send their papers directly, without going through journals.  By the time E-Biomed had morphed into Pubmed Central, that idea had been dropped.  But it could be revived. 

Or, we could decide that the public’s need for access to the results of the research that they’ve paid for could be met by providing access to the progress reports and final reports that grantees have to submit to the funding agency.  Would that be enough?

But the proponents of open access clearly believe that it is not enough.  They want public access to the peer reviewed results of federally-funded research.  And they want that peer review to be facilitated by the publishers.  And they grind their teeth over having to pay a subscription fee to some publishers to fund that peer review process, but they happily pay a publication fee to OA publishers.

It’s the open access result that justifies paying the fee, not the fact that “taxpayers have already paid for it”.  If it’s not legitimate to pay a subscription fee to a publisher in order for them to handle peer review and publication, then it shouldn’t be legitimate to pay a publication fee, if the argument is that the taxpayers have already paid for it.

A logical argument could be:  In order to provide public access to the peer reviewed results of federally-funded research, taxpayers should pay an additional sum in order for those results to be published open access.  (Stuart Shieber’s “Equity for Open Access Journal Publishing” is a quite elegant proposal along these lines that should have gotten more attention and discussion than it did.)   You could argue that this is a more effective way of providing taxpayer funds for the peer review & publication processes, because then all taxpayers have access, rather than just those who can get through the subscription hurdles.  As an added benefit, you’d be insuring that the version that the public gets access to is the final, stewarded, version-of-record. 

But then you’d have to give up shouting indignantly that under the current system “the taxpayer is forced to pay twice!”  And what fun would that be?