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Tyranny of the Calendar

Quantifying the value of peer review

David Shulenburger's talk yesterday left me thinking again about the conundrum that seems to me to still be at the heart of the dispute between some publishers and the NIH over the public access policy.  Despite all of the blather and charges and countercharges we still haven't really sorted out the relationship between the value of peer review, the role of the publishers, and the impact on the public good.

Explicit in the NIH policy is that peer review has substantial value -- so much so, that NIH does not want any manuscripts deposited that have not gone through a rigorous peer review process and gotten the stamp of approval from a recognized peer review authority -- i.e., a publisher.  In developing the policy, NIH could have come up with their own vetting mechanism, but instead they quite sensibly chose to rely on the experts in managing peer review.  (And don't be fooled by the oft repeated truism that "peer review is all done by volunteers anyway."  If it were that simple, why wouldn't NIH just set up their own peer review system?)

But here's where it gets sticky.  In "the old days" (when everybody understood what the rules were), publishers gained control of copyright in exchange for managing the peer review process.   They were then entitled to use that control to develop revenue streams that would compensate them for the value that they were adding to the system.  Copyright gave them control of the distribution of the work to which they had added value.   Under the terms of the NIH policy publishers are expected to give up that control.  And it irks them.

Publishers add value in many ways.  The editing, layout, design of graphs and figures and supplementary material, the context that can be provided through editorials and relationships to other articles in a journal -- all of the elements that visually distinguish the final published article from the author's manuscript version can be useful and worthwhile.   The public access policy says that the publisher is still free to get compensated for all of those things, as if they were the totality of the value that the publisher adds.

But the publisher has already lost control of what is most important -- the imprimatur that says that this article has gone through the peer review process and has been accepted as worthy.    Since that process doesn't necessarily result in significant changes of expression, it's not part of the copyrightable package, but it adheres to the author's manuscript version every bit as much as it does to the final published version.

It is argued that this is not an unfair "taking" since the publisher has the right to refuse to grant the license that allows the author to deposit with Pubmed Central.  Puh-leeze!  This is, no doubt, technically and legalistically true.   But since when is a choice between complying with a policy and going out of business a real choice?  "Dear publisher -- we respectfully ask that, for the benefit of the common good, you give up control of the most significant element of value that you add to the scholarly communication process.  We don't actually have any way of compensating you for that, so you are perfectly free to refuse to do so -- in which case, you will, of course, be put out of business since you will no longer receive the manuscripts that are your bread and butter, but them's the breaks.  Good luck."

Shulenburger's been on campus doing some consulting for the university on matters not directly related to scholarly publishing, but we were fortunate that he was willing to take some time to do a public lecture on the topic.   The substance of his talk was drawn from a document that has received wide distribution since it's release last February:  The University's Role in the Dissemination of Research and Scholarship.  It makes a compelling case for the necessity for universities to take a very active role in disseminating, via institutional repositories, the scholarly output that they produce.  Peer-reviewed journal literature is only a part of that, but it's a critical part.  Shulenburger encouraged us to consider developing a policy similar to the Harvard and MIT mandates.  There were several Deans in the audience and I could see a lot of heads nodding.

While everyone involved in the debate agrees on the fundamental importance of peer review, and everyone seems to agree that it ought to be managed by the traditional peer review authorities, the pro-policy advocates have not directly confronted the fact that the policy does require publishers to give up control of something of great value without providing anything in return.   Wouldn't it be more constructive to acknowledge this fact and try to develop policies that account for it in some way, rather than dodging behind legalisms and hyperbolic rhetoric? 

Really, I'm just lookin' for a little intellectual good faith here.


Andrew Spong

I'm not sure that publishers are as hard-done by as you suggest.

Rather, I think the NIH has manifested a certain prescience in pre-dating rather than post-dating the publishers' immanent disintermediation from the process of publishing scholarly journals.

Effective alternatives for registering, distributing and archiving the literature already exist. Publishers remain instrumental in expediting the validation of the literature by means of the peer-review process, but it's not as if they actually *do* it themselves. The sliver of terrain they still occupy is being encroached upon (see the 'peer-review related' links at et al), and when the communities of purpose that social media are conjoining are afforded the opportunity to manage the peer-review process themselves, it's hard to see how a society will benefit from working with a publisher rather than taking the title back in-house.


The question is: **Should** publishers still have the right to control distribution, now that the Web is an inescapable element of scholarly communication?

Yes--the NIH Policy removes this control, and the "choices" that publishers supposedly have are false (it's like the choice to buy chicken at $3/lb with the grocery store card or $10/lb without the card.) And the publishers are not evil, just businesspeople protecting their interests.

All that said, I still support the NIH Policy--imperfect though it may be--as a necessary step toward increasing taxpayer access to publicly funded research. Perhaps NIH will need to facilitate peer review in 10 years time if this all plays out as publishers fear...or another intermediary will arise who can serve this purpose.

An analogy: Newspapers are collapsing because ad revenues haven't materialized on the Web. But if professional journalism really vanishes (blogging is important but not the same thing), I predict that non-profit foundations will fill the breach. Journalism is too important to vanish, but how we fund it might need to change. Same too for peer review, perhaps?

Publishers have every right to feel threatened, and they are all smart enough to see through the librarian doubletalk. This doesn't mean they have a tenable position.


Quite right, we're all entitled to be paid for the value we add. My standard rate for peer review is $25/hr. For OA journals, I will continue to review for free.

medieval clothing

Yes--the NIH Policy removes this control, and the "choices" that publishers supposedly have are false (it's like the choice to buy chicken at $3/lb with the grocery store card or $10/lb without the card.) And the publishers are not evil, just businesspeople protecting their interests. -I agree..

Thanks for the interesting post. Keep up the good work!

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