On March 1st, Axios Review, a prominent upstart in providing external peer review, closed its doors. While submissions continued to grow, volume was insufficient to sustain the business, explained Tim Vines, founder and Managing Editor of Axios Review. The company was founded in 2013 and converted to a non-profit society late in 2016.
I interviewed Vines on what he learned from his experiment in providing independent (also referred to as portable) peer review.
- Many editors insisted on conducting their own peer review. According to Vines, about half of the manuscripts referred from Axios went out for another round of peer review. Vines concedes that this was not surprising, as many journal editors send manuscripts out for a second round of peer review after an author submits a revised manuscript. Some authors, however, were puzzled and frustrated with having their paper being re-reviewed, and Vines admits that he should have done a better job making it clear that an Axios referral does not necessarily mean that editors are simply left with the decision to accept or reject.
- Authors are price sensitive. While submission rates were rising steadily during the early days of Axios, growth stopped when they introduced a $250 USD fee. Vines was surprised with authors’ price sensitivity, considering that many authors in ecology and evolution were willing to pay ten-times that fee for publication in an open access journal. An arrangement with BioMed Central journals allowed authors to deduct the $250 Axios fee from their article processing charge (APC), making the total publication cost identical. [I should note that while many funders will cover the cost of APCs, I know of none that cover separate peer review fees.]
- Entrenched workflows. Coupled with the unwillingness of authors to pay out of pocket, Vines conceded that academic workflows are deeply entrenched. He writes:
Overall, I blame the lack of uptake on a deep inertia in the researcher community in adopting new workflows, particularly one that cost them even a small amount of money. Friends that moved into the business world find our failure bemusing, as their companies always evaluate purchasing a service in terms of how much time/effort they’ll save against how much it costs. The fact that academics won’t pay $250, even if it saves them months of fruitless submitting and resubmitting, strongly implies that they place very little value on their own time, or on the time of their students.
I reached out to two competing independent peer review companies on developments in their own companies since my first review of portable peer review (see: Whither Portable Peer Review).
Janne-Tuomas Seppänen, Founder and Managing Director of Peerage of Science was cautious to equate the failing of Axios with a failure of independent peer review. First, he noted, their business models are completely different: Axios charged authors for their service while Peerage charges publishers. Second, Axios attempted to outsource traditional editor-managed peer review services, while Peerage gives authors full control of the peer review process. Seppänen was traveling and unable to provide me with with current benchmark statistics, but noted that Peerage recently added two titles to its participating journal list.
Damian Pattinson, VP of Publishing Innovation at Research Square (owners of Rubriq), noted that it has been difficult to convince publishers to outsource their review process and editors to accept manuscripts that have already been peer reviewed—even if the quality of review is comparable to what they do internally.
Like most services in academic publishing, independent (portable) peer review needs high-volume in order to be profitable. At present, these services are attracting — at best — hundreds of manuscripts per year. For Axios, this was not sufficient to run a company and pay its single employee (Tim Vines). Peerage of Science was started with sponsorship from Finnish institutions and, while the company is now self-supporting, its founders draw no salary or other compensation from Peerage — all of them have jobs in research. Rubriq reviewed 30 manuscripts over the past three months, according to their ‘papers reviewed’ counter on their homepage. The company does, however, offer authors other services including language translation, editing and other manuscript preparation and recommendation activities.
In the past, I’ve argued that there was enough room in scholarly publishing for two separate review markets: one, based on a volunteer labor market (the traditional model); the other, based on a commercial service model. Until recently, I believed that the market would bifurcate, with “scientifically sound” open access journals gravitating to a commercial service. This doesn’t seem to be the case.
While many editors complain that it is difficult to find volunteer reviewers, the absence of a commercial alternative indicates that they do eventually find them. Research strongly suggests that there is an ample supply of reviewers to meet growing demand.
Second, I may have been too critical of “scientifically sound” manuscripts, arguing that they offer little in return for a reviewer’s time and that it may be more efficient to pay a commercial service to review these manuscripts rather than seek a willing volunteer.
Academics express a lot of goodwill when it comes to peer review. According to an international survey of authors conducted in 2015 by the Publishing Research Consortium and Mark Ware, the overwhelming majority of respondents enjoyed being able to improve a paper and that the act of reviewing connected them to their academic community (see p.36 “Reasons for Reviewing”).
In sum, the success of independent (or portable) peer review starts with a strong belief that the traditional journal-centered model of external review using voluntary labor is failing and can be rebuilt (at least for part of the market) with a new model that requires authors, editors, and publishers to change their workflow. Apparently, this is quite a business challenge.
The closing of Axios Review coupled with unremarkable growth in independent peer review doesn’t necessarily mean that a successful model won’t emerge; however, the current state of portable peer review appears more wither than whither.