The world of scholarly communications may want to look closely at what happened on Wall Street, as some proposed practices would duplicate the very thing for publishing that caused the world’s financial institutions to collapse.
No, this is not a tale of Bernie Madoff, greed, or anything to do with personal character. This is a story of systemic problems–problems that exist by design–the kind that even the strongest personal integrity must struggle to overturn. I am referring, of course, to what it means to have authors pay for their own peer review.
At the core of the financial collapse were the corrupt practices of the rating agencies: Fitch, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor. If you want to market a security–say, a basket of mortgages or municipal bonds or corporate debt–you contact a rating agency. For a fee, the agency will rank the risk of your debt. The $2.5 billion in bonds and securities that Harvard University sold recently to offset its debt is not very risky; hence, it will pay a relatively low interest rate. Meanwhile, an entrepreneur’s global expansion is a long shot, so must pay higher interest rate to attract investors.
The rating agencies, paid by the issuers of debt, looked at subprime mortgages and pronounced them to be good, safe investments. When it turned out that people could not pay their mortgages, one financial institution after another toppled.
That hole you feel in your pocket was caused by a system in which Party A pays Party B to evaluate Party A.
Here’s how this form of “author-pays” would work. Our author, Jane Scriptoria, writes a scholarly article and deposits a copy in the repository of her parent institution. At this stage, the article may or may not be available over the Internet. Then Professor Scriptoria submits that article to a journal, which manages peer review. If the article is deemed to be of sufficient quality, the journal “accepts” it–or, more accurately, certifies it–and the copy in the repository is made available through open access. Professor Scriptoria pays the journal for the peer-review service.
This author-pays model is systemically corruptive. The journal has an incentive to give Professor Scriptoria a good score, and the risk is very great that over time the standards of the publication will weaken.
Opponents of open access should take no comfort from this story. There is indeed a place for open access, and there is a place for a form of author-pays. The questions are: When does the author pay? and For what exactly is she paying?
Paying for her own evaluation is a terrible practice. It would be much better if she were to pay for online hosting services and access to tools, which could include annotation software, enabling the scholarly community to review Professor Scriptoria’s work in the open, on the Web, after she has paid a different party for the IT services. This is a form of post-publication peer-review, facilitated by a robust software platform.
It will be noted that some of this argument draws heavily on the developments in the consumer Internet world, where social media, from Facebook to Twitter, have begun to develop a new kind of communication. For all the limitations of these services, over time they will develop into useful means of establishing important communications for scholars.
We should look to them, rather than Wall Street, for guidance.