It’s well known that publishers have done an inadequate job conveying the importance and complexity of the work they and their staffs, vendors, experts, and specialists do, day in and day out, to produce thousands of high-level journals, many of them with daily or weekly publication schedules. But it hurts even more when it seems we’ve succumbed to our own inadequate marketing, and can’t muster the effort to reveal the nesting dolls of value inside even one of the activities.
This sad reality appears any number of times in meetings, conferences, and blog posts, in which labeled activities (marketing, editing, copy editing, formatting) are spoken of in passing, as if their value is well-understood and the work involved well-articulated. I was recently in a meeting consisting of a number of publishers, when one mentioned that we couldn’t forget to mention the “value-add publishers bring through peer review.” And we moved on, again not pausing to consider just how many layers of activity that includes.
Not only are we bad at conveying much about what we do, but we haven’t even internalized it all yet.
This post is about unpacking the “value-add publishers bring through peer review,” with the explicit note that this is but one of the 80+ things that publishers do. Once you see what we call “peer review” unpacked, I hope you’ll agree that it is, in itself, a non-trivial effort, investment, and process when done with serious intent.
Where do we begin? We begin with the existential.
Journals don’t occur in nature. They have to be brought into being by people who invest time and money into their creation. Journals have to exist before they can attract authors, editors, and reviewers, and before staff can put these participants into a process of one sort or another with the implicit or explicit goal of selecting quality materials and delivering them to an audience. The mere existence of a journal creates a priority system of some type, and this priority system drives certain positive behaviors among scientists, as noted by economist Paula Stephan:
Knowledge has properties of what economists call a public good: once made public, people can’t be excluded from its use and it is not used up in the act of use (non-rivalrous). Economists have gone to considerable effort to show that the market does a poor job providing items with such characteristics. That’s where priority comes in: the only way that a scientist can establish priority of discovery is to make his (her) findings public. Or, stated differently, the only way to make it yours is to give it away. Priority “solves” the public good problem, providing a strong incentive for scientists to share their discoveries. The upside is that priority encourages the production and sharing of research. There are other positives — one relates to the fact that it is virtually impossible to reward people in science for effort since it’s virtually impossible to monitor scientists. The priority system solves this, rewarding people for achievement rather than effort. Priority also discourages shirking — knowing that multiple discoveries of the same finding are somewhat commonplace leads scientists to exert effort.
Without journals, we would have to reinvent a major priority system. (Of course, any priority system drives some negative behaviors, as well, and journals are no exception.) Without peer review, we wouldn’t have valid journals. Without editors, we wouldn’t have peer review. And the list goes on, with the essential message being that peer review is not “value add” but is key to the priority system that drives science and the sharing of scientific information. Those who manage it are working essential processes, not marginal activities.
Bringing something into existence means courting risk, and publishers court risk for the sake of facilitating communication. As I wrote in 2012, publishing is not “a button,” but a complex risk activity. Starting a journal requires financial stakes and has no guarantees. Recall that when PLOS started, it needed a multi-million-dollar grant to fund its startup years. PeerJ required venture funding from O’Reilly. Many journals have in their histories tales of brushes with failure or strange paths to modern success. Starting a journal is a non-trivial matter, especially if the goals of the journal are audacious and expansive. (And while there are edge cases of journals starting for far less, these are not the norm, and don’t seem valid for much extrapolation.)
So, the first major piece of value to unpack from the peer review function is the mere existence of a journal and a publisher, both of which require capital, specialist knowledge, and commitment to a complex business in order to exist. This allows an independent peer review system to exist, and is the largest of the nesting dolls.
The next layer comes in the recruitment, management, and evaluation of peer reviewers. This work involves staff, full-time editors, and volunteer editors. Done well, it requires creating and managing an evaluation process, monitoring adherence, and periodically reviewing the results. The hours involved are significant.
Disclosures are another layer of managing the peer review process. Disclosures are not straightforward in many cases, and require judgment and interaction with authors and editors.
Artwork has to be prepared for peer review. If interactive graphics, videos, or audio files are part of an article, ways to include these in the peer review process and gather feedback must be created and managed.
Plagiarism is still a problem, and the peer review process seeks to eliminate as much as possible. Often, anti-plagiarism tools are deployed selectively, as using them incurs expense. The results can be marginal or mixed. All of this — selecting which papers to check, evaluating the results of any analysis — requires more time, interactions, and judgment.
Record-keeping is another major part of providing peer review services. Records have to be kept straight during the entire process, which often lasts weeks and can last months. Because most journals are part of stable communities, authors return, whether previously accepted or previously rejected. If corrections or retractions emerge, these records can be important, providing editors with a way to sort out the extent of a problem.
Record-keeping is also important because part of managing the peer review process can involve dealing with legal claims against authors, editors, or journals. Subpoenas can appear. Files must be produced, legal advice sought.
There are other dolls nested inside — publisher insurance, hiring and training of staff, dealing with vendors, creating expedited peer review approaches — which only underscore the complexity of what is inside the label “peer review.”
Peer review is more complicated than it may appear, and requires many functions that are interdependent, including building a brand that not only attracts papers but which carries forward the function of establishing a relatively clear and well-understood priority system for scientists and science.
So, the next time you consider summarizing a function involved in publishing with a label and then moving on, take some time to see what’s inside. It may surprise you.