Peer review only works when qualified reviewers are willing to volunteer their time and expertise. When they won’t volunteer, yet expect others to review their work, the system edges toward collapse.
In an article published July in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, entitled “Pubcreds: Fixing the Peer Review Process by ‘Privatizing’ the Reviewer Commons,” ecologists Jeremy Fox and Owen Petchey propose a solution to prevent selfish authors from exploiting the system: Privatize it.
Fox and Petchey propose the creation of a central bank they call the “PubCred Bank.” This is not a bank where real money is transacted. Instead, it works on a form of symbolic coinage they call “PubCreds.”
Review an article, and you are rewarded with one PubCred. Save at least three PubCreds, and you can spend them on submitting your own article for review. Handling editors receive half a PubCred for each manuscript they manage.
The desired outcome to such a symbolic banking system is to distribute the workload of review and avoid cases where authors exploit the time and resources of others without paying back into the system.
The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, for example, uses a similar banking approach. A submission costs you two timely reviews or US $350. Authors may “borrow” review credits, but are fined if they are not promptly repaid.
Under the PubCred system, authors would need to pay into the system before they use it. Fox and Petchey do allow for “overdrafts,” in which authors may hold negative balances. In the case of authors who are unable to pay, journals may provide waivers. Participating journals would be forbidden to pay more than one credit for a review (say, to persuade a qualified reviewer to participate), or to waive the fee in order to encourage submission. The changes in author behavior would be immediate, write Fox and Petchey:
This is effectively a means of privatizing the reviewer commons. Alternatively, our proposal can be thought of as simply making overexploitation of the reviewer commons impossible. Furthermore, individuals who attempt to publish smallest acceptable units (the “salami slicer syndrome”), or who resubmit rejected manuscripts without appropriate revision, would be free to do so, but would pay an appropriate price.
Essentially, Fox and Petchey are creating a central bank, in which everyone agrees upon the rules of lending. This is the antithesis of a laissez-faire free market economy where transactions are free from state intervention and authors, editors, and reviewers are allowed to negotiate their own deals. Under the central bank model, decisions to publish are dictated solely by the balance in one’s account.
The authors have clearly thought through their proposal, providing specific details of how the banking system would operate and acknowledging many of its limitations. It is a proposal that is built on theory, knowledge of how the peer review system actually works, and an admittance that their proposal will not solve all of the problems of the current system. They have responded to many concerns on their blog. For all of these reasons, this is a proposal that should be considered and not dismissed on a few technical details.
On the other hand, Fox and Petchey assume a state of “crisis” that needs to be take on faith. They provide only anecdotes to support the notion that editors are experiencing more difficulty finding competent reviewers. Indeed, they freely admit the lack of any longitudinal data. More importantly, they assume that peer-review is a burden to researchers, and one that provides no benefits (such as being able to view relevant research ahead of colleagues, the power to influence its content (i.e., “you forgot to cite me!”), and ultimately, publication). Some journals publicly thank their reviewers and let the best join their editorial boards. It is far from a purely altruistic system.
Creating a monetary system — even a symbolic one — changes the incentives to review, and with them, the behavior of authors. As citation indexes changed the nature of citation behavior, we should assume that a review credit system would have similar effects. Some authors may resort to gaming the system:
Individuals in positions of power could coerce others to do their reviewing, in return for authorship. People are likely to find ways to cheat, and the PubCred Banking system may have to be modified in response.
Fox and Petchey acknowledge that such a central banking system requires its own source of funding and administration and may suffer from free-riders. For instance, journals that currently experience no problem in finding competent reviewers may refuse to join and benefit from the work of others.
Finding the funds to support such a system may be difficult since the return on investment is unclear. As most publishers have already invested in online manuscript review systems, Fox and Petchey argue that adding a banking system may not be onerous. They also propose a non-profit organization that pays for the system through online advertisement.
The real problem with the PubCred proposal is that it attempts to provide a global solution to local problems.
The search for competent reviewers is essentially the search for expertise — and expertise is a limited resource. The fact that experts feel overburdened with requests to review is not a sign of a system in crisis, but a sign of a healthy system that is able to locate these pools of experts. A central banking system, in contrast, attempts to maximize the efficiency of the system, spreads the responsibility of peer review around, and ignores competency in return for bodies. It is a system that would turn the meritocracy of science into a bureaucratic barter system.
If we are suffering, as many claim, from an avalanche of mediocre science, lowering the competency level for peer review is only going to make things worse.