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When markets decline and companies fail, it is easy to look back and point fingers, usually at corporate leaders who didn’t understand the core purpose of their industry.  In the case of the railroad, they failed to see that they were essentially in the transportation business, and not in the business of laying track and building engines.

In the December 22 edition of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki, financial columnist and author of the best-seller, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” focuses on the rapid demise of the newspaper industry.  While other commentators have focused on anemic revenue from online ads and the failure to attract a new generation of newspaper readers, Surowiecki argues from the consumer perspective:

The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

Does this sound familiar?  Substitute  journal for newspaper and scholar for reader, and we have something that sounds surprisingly familiar to the market for scholarly journals.  We have a generation of students growing up in an online environment not understanding what a subscription is, and a new cohort of faculty and researchers believing that the articles they access are free.  From their perspective, they are free, and in good financial times, libraries can keep this misperception alive.  In bad financial times, the perception is a liability to publishers and their products.  Surowiecki warns:

Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.

So what if publishers failed?  Would the business analyst of the future look back and claim that publishers held on to publishing when they should have realized that they were really in the business of something else?  Strip manuscript management, editing, layout, financial and access models away from publishing and you find four essential functions:

  1. Registration (essential for establishing priority claims in science)
  2. Certification (for establishing the validity of truth claims)
  3. Distribution (providing access to the literature)
  4. Archiving (maintaining the record of science)

In the print world of publishing, these four functions were inextricably bundled together.  Enter online repositories (institution repositories, digital archives, or subject-based repositories like the arXiv) and you’ve just covered functions 1, 3, and 4.  Find a way to compete with the validation process (aka, peer-review) of scholarly publishing, and you’re now in direct competition with journals.

If scholarly publishers fail in the future, it will be because they let go of the most valuable function they provide — the validation process.  If they succeed, it will be because they understood the deeper meaning of validation and not considered it the mundane act of peer-review.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


7 Thoughts on "Banking on Peer Review"

Another possibility is that other fields will adopt the business structure of legal journals. All major law schools underwrite at least one, and more often five or six, law reviews. The law reviews are organized by students, elected by there peers. Student leadership is responsible for delegating editing, manuscript selection, source checking, faculty coordination, etc.

The model is beneficial to universities because it slaps their name as publisher on prominent research, as well as giving their student body the opportunity to develop skills.

The model assists students, giving them an opportunity to beef up their resumes.

Professors, for the most part, like the model. (At the very least, they keep submitting their research when there are a number of peer-edited reviews available.) It breaks professors free from having to exceedingly worry about the black hole of legal citation.

Lastly, the public benefits because journals aren’t forced to turn a profit. The public gets free access to well edited (or at least substantially edited) pieces of research.

To Phil’s four publishing functions I would add a fifth: calling attention to the work. This is the most important function of all.

Joe Esposito

Roosendaal and Geurts [1997] described 4, which is Philip’s 4 if you replace “distribution” with “awareness”, which is what Joseph also mentioned. Distribution is a good one, actually. But I think that is somewhat implied with the awareness + archiving part.

Van de Sompel [2006] added a fifth: “Rewarding” (which he seems to have derived from the same paper actually). I think that is a good one as well, but also indirectly implied with the other four functions: being “formally registered” as the person that made the discovery is a “reward”, passing the certification phase is “rewarding” and having them archive and spread the word is also a reward.

For the preprint culture, I guess awareness is indeed the most important. Traditionally, though, we can argue that without certification, most of the scholars do not care for the awareness part. In that case, I think “searchability” beats “made aware of”. Would that fall under “archiving” (with a good search interface) I wonder?

Roosendaal and Geurts [1997]

Van de Sompel [2006]

Distribution (delivering the material to the reader’s desk) is quite distinct from “awareness”, or drawing attention to the work. I agree with Joe Esposito that the latter is another important function of publishing. I would say there are two aspects:

(a) Discovery – leading readers to the material by means of searches, citation links, reviews, databases, and so on. This is under clearly threat in the online age, although publishers seem to be doing a reasonable job of keeping up for the time being.

(b) Comment – putting the research into context by means of commissioned editorials, commentaries, editorial overviews etc. Again, this is under threat to a certain extent. To succeed in this area, we need to focus on quality – there is plenty of comment online, but how much of it is worth reading?

‘Distribution (delivering the material to the reader’s desk) is quite distinct from “awareness”’

I agree. However, “awareness” + “archiving”, does imply a type of “accessibility”. And that is essentially the point of it all: communication. Whether that is done from publishers delivering it to the readers (e.g. “handing it out”) or from the opposite direction: where the readers come to you and get it themselves (e.g. “fetching it”), we are still talking about the material being communicated.

Getting back to Philip’s point: maybe this is a “hint” that, as crazy as that may sound for some now, journals “distributing” research papers is not (going to be) a core business of journal publishers at all.

Personally, I agree with Philip that journal publishers still have a “monopoly” on being the standard source for research materials because of the certification function. Journal publishers trying to outdo, say repositories, with the awareness function is a lost cause in the digital world with RSS, recommender systems and other social bookmarking services. The same for archiving. The registration function is still going strong, though.

Thank you all for an excellent and thoughtful discussion!

I’m not sure I agree with rewarding being a function provided by the publisher. It is an author’s community that recognizes and rewards its peer for making a public contribution to science, not the publisher.

When we say that a certain journal is prestigious, we say that the wider community of authors and readers recognizes this journal for the product it creates. Prestige is a judgment we individually (and collectively) make about a journal — it is not created by the publisher.

In other words, a publisher can only provide functional tasks. It is the wider community that collectively decides what is rewarded.

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