Why does peer review take so long? This is a common complaint publishers hear from authors. There are many answers; most commonly papers are delayed because it is difficult to get enough people to agree to perform the review or reviewers fail to get their reviews done in a timely manner. There remains something of a disconnect for researchers between their expectations as authors and their behavior as reviewers (see also: complaints about reviewers asking for additional experiments). A fast review process provides a competitive advantage for a journal, and the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) recently performed an experiment in outsourced, fast track peer review to try to address the problem. The unexpected consequence of this experiment exposed something else entirely: concern from the research community over tiered systems where wealthy authors are favored over those lacking funds.
NPG launched a four-week trial in their megajournal Scientific Reports. The journal features a Gold open access (OA) business model, where accepted authors pay a $1,495 article processing charge (APC). In the trial, authors willing to pay an additional $750 upfront would get their decision in three weeks. NPG would be able to offer this additional speed by outsourcing the peer review process to Rubriq, a service offered by the private company Research Square.
This experiment offered an interesting opportunity to explore what’s been dubbed the “freemium” model as a way of funding OA journals. When we discuss the many things that publishers provide, we hear from some commenters that some of these services seem unnecessary, and often a proposed solution is that authors should only pay for the services they want. Taken to an extreme, one would decouple the various services from the journal, offer something like a preprint archive (e.g., arXiv) and authors would then pay separately for each service they wish to add to their paper (peer review, copyediting, marketing, etc.).
NPG’s experiment seems a first step in this direction. Keep costs low for all authors and let those for whom speed matters pay a premium. There is clearly demand for the offering, as some 25 authors elected to pay the extra cost for fast track peer review. However, the reaction from the research community as a whole suggests that the freemium model is unlikely to see broad acceptance in this manner.
As the program was announced, UCL professor and Scientific Reports editor Mark Maslin resigned from the journal in protest. This was quickly followed by other editors following suit, and eventually a protest letter from a group of editors was written, announcing their concerns. The general consensus was that this experiment set a dangerous precedent and would result in a two-tiered system, where one group of well-funded authors would receive different treatment from those lacking funds.
This gets to an inherent flaw in author-pays business models. One of the core goals of OA is to do away with economic barriers preventing researchers from accessing the literature. But by shifting the economic burden from the readers to the author, different economic barriers spring up, preventing those who can’t afford APCs from publishing their own work.
I’m in the midst of starting a Gold OA journal for a broad, interdisciplinary research society. The strongest resistance to the new journal has come from the society’s social sciences and humanities researcher members. Most don’t have funding, so the typical APC charge for such a journal is beyond their means. This leaves them feeling left out and expecting that the journal will end up as yet another service aimed at their wealthier biomedical research colleagues.
To combat this, we’re offering a generous waiver program. But the success of such programs can be somewhat variable and it is unclear whether they are broadly sustainable in the long term. There still remain no clear cut criteria for providing waivers or discounted fees for authors. PLOS has long been a leader in exploring these areas, and their program has evolved over time from “no questions asked” to a careful examination of an author’s financial portfolio. The additional scrutiny has not been well-received by researchers.
Without clear criteria and an ability to confirm that an applicant meets those criteria, a waiver program is difficult, if not impossible to administer. Putting together financial records for examination adds a time burden to authors; going through those records a time and cost burden to a journal, with those costs likely passed on to paying authors. In the case of NPG’s fast track, the time required for a waiver review would likely wipe out any advantage offered by the program anyway.
There is a deep philosophical egalitarianism that runs through academia–your success should come from the merit of your work, not from the size of your bank account. This runs contrary to systems where your treatment is based on your ability to pay. I worry that any sort of freemium approach, where finances so clearly permit an advantage to one group over another may never be acceptable to researchers.
The other really interesting thing to emerge from this experiment is a glimpse at the importance of brands to researchers, and whether outsourced peer review is something they’d willingly accept in an established journal. A key set of questions asked by the protesting editors was:
Who is going to choose reviewers, will it be colleagues or the company managers? Who will be ensuring that the rigor and standards of peer review are maintained? What about handling appeals and possible conflicts of interest? What about the expertise of the reviewers?
When an author submits a paper to a particular journal, they are doing so under the assumption that the process of review will be expertly managed by the editors of that journal. Each journal has its own carefully cultivated reputation. If you do research you likely know the “personality” of each journal in your particular field. Readers of journal articles similarly rely on journal brands as filtering mechanisms for decisions about what to read. If instead the editorial process is outsourced to a third party, does that change the nature (no pun intended) of the journal?
NPG notes that they, “conducted a successful private parallel run of peer-review outputs comparing Rubriq with Scientific Reports,” essentially noting that the quality of reviews received was similar between the private company and NPG’s own efforts. They may have a point for a journal that bases acceptance solely on the article being “technically sound and scientifically valid,” rather than on judgments of novelty or importance. If the peer review process is essentially a fact check, then the levels of expertise needed may indeed be less than a process that is meant to be an assessment of the quality of the work by a panel of experts.
I’m not sure outsourcing peer review would extend well to NPG’s other journals with different criteria for acceptance. Would you still read a journal the same way if the articles were selected by an anonymous group of randos rather than a publicly declared editorial board? Would knowing that you had no input into selecting peer reviewers make you less likely to sign on as an editorial board member? Would you feel you had sufficient information to make editorial decisions if you didn’t have a hand in selecting just the right peer reviewers?
Idealism aside, financial disparities are a fact of life in a system where limited funds are unevenly distributed. The lab that can afford the newest cutting edge equipment has an advantage over the lab that has to make do with older tools. A big, well-funded research group that can throw lots of investigators at a question likely has an advantage over one researcher working part-time on the problem.
Additional fees for upgrades are nothing new in the world of journals. One could easily view color charges or hybrid OA options as freemium offerings. Charging fees for a fast track review process may be seen as a step too far though, as it occurs before the accept/reject decision is made and thus enters into a realm viewed as sacrosanct. To be fair to NPG, fast track review for a fee is not something they invented and has been part of the publishing landscape for some time (a complaint about favoring rich authors dating to 2011 can be found here).
Perhaps the problem here is less in the concept and more in the execution. Adding outsourced peer review to an existing journal with a particular reputation for quality and an editorial board used to exerting control over the peer review process may be too fundamental a change. Similarly, by framing the fast track program as an add-on to an existing process, it sets up an uneven playing field for authors within the same journal. Had NPG done the exact same thing but set this up as a new, separate journal (Scientific Reports Express) with its own (outsourced and anonymous) editorial board and its own higher APC (with the $750 premium built-in rather than as an add-on), would anyone have protested?