I published my first peer-reviewed article back in 1998, but it took me a while to become a peer reviewer. I did my first review for American Journal of Botany in 2005, a year after completing my PhD at the University of Liverpool and after publishing a couple of articles from my doctoral research. I first joined an editorial board in 2006, when Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy (the journal where I published my first paper) created a new executive editor position. In 2009, I started mentoring young researchers through the AuthorAID program from INASP (UK). In 2011, the INASP and Bangladesh Academy of Sciences (BAS) organized training for Bangladeshi researchers on research communication — the first-ever event I designed and facilitated.
Although I have long been passionate about scholarly communication, I never took it on as a profession. Locked in my home in Bangladesh to save myself and my family from the latest wave of the pandemic, I started wondering — what does the volunteerism of individuals look like in scholarly publishing?
If we imagine a manuscript being drafted for a journal, we may see the first cluster of voluntary activities around it. In addition to taking help from friends or colleagues to analyze a dataset or draw a better diagram, early-career researchers often show their draft manuscripts to peers or senior colleagues at their institutions to see “if it is okay”. These not-co-authors offer their advice to young colleagues as a good will gesture or out of academic duty. Many research mentorship programs facilitate similar interactions, but in a bit more formal manner — AuthorAID brings together about 13,250 mentees and 850 mentors from all over the world, mostly from the Global South covering wide range of disciplines, while the Gobeshona Young Researcher Program focuses on the climate change research of Bangladesh, for example.
The second cluster of volunteerism can be seen once a manuscript is submitted to a journal. Many of the chief, managing, executive, section, and assistant editors of journals are volunteers, as are editorial board members. They provide their services because they feel a responsibility to help guide their field, because of the prestige associated with the journals, because the position is a recognition of their scholarship, just out of altruism, or for a mix of all of these reasons.
Peer-reviewers — the nameless, thus the most selfless volunteers of the journal publishing system — are also driven by similar motivations. Of course, there might be a subconscious bargain being fulfilled in their minds. Since academic disciplines are closed systems, academics review others’ manuscripts expecting that someone, somewhere, will do the same favor for them when they publish their own manuscripts. That’s why I see peer review as an example of “good karma”.
Of course, the concept of “open” peer review has given the good old anonymous (as we’ve become more aware of ableist language, journals are now working to do away with the term “blind”) peer review a new perspective, which coincides with the recent surge of preprint servers and the ongoing open science movement. Over the last few years, many journals have welcomed Registered Reports, adopting a two-stage peer-review system by adding peer-review of the research design before data collection. These examples show diverse trends in peer-review-related volunteerism.
Once an article is published, I see three different but related paths of volunteerism making up the third cluster. In one path, interested researchers voluntarily spread the link to the new article via social media, which indeed enhances the reach of the new publication. Upon personal request, authors sharing their published articles, which otherwise might be unavailable for non-subscribers to the journal, with colleagues and researchers worldwide via email or social media creates another path. A further path is taken when an author cites an original article in their new manuscript and enhances the reputation of the original article’s authors as well as the journal in which it was published.
The fourth cluster of volunteerism can be seen in the societies associated with scholarly publishing. While individuals or their organizations pay fees to become members of such organizations, they voluntarily get involved in numerous activities on their behalf. For example, besides being office-bearers of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP), SSP members can serve on 13 different committees. In addition, the SSP Mentorship Program facilitates SSP members as mentors voluntarily offering professional advice to mentees.
Numerous conferences, training sessions and webinars organized by scholarly publishing societies often ask for additional fees from their members and non-member participants for covering event costs and organizational running expenses. But facilitators, resource persons, speakers, and panelists, who are essentially part of wider scholarly industry, offer their time, skills and knowledge voluntarily. Non-organizational scholarly publishing events, like the annual Researcher to Reader Conference, also seek advice and support from their volunteer advisory board members.
As the fifth cluster, many journal publishers are supported by interns, graduate students, or fellows working as volunteers on a short-term basis. Scholarly publishing foundations, indexing agencies, and other numerous commercial and not-for-profit entities, including start-ups, which support different aspects of scholarly publishing — from helping authors to check manuscript language to improving journals’ workflow to creating opportunities to enhance journals’ profile — also work with wide range of volunteers at different capacities (e.g., 15 AuthorAID Stewards based in 12 countries on five continents).
The sixth cluster includes scholarly blogs, magazines, and podcasts as these are driven by voluntary engagement from the contributors and guests. The Scholarly Kitchen (TSK), for example, in addition to its volunteer Chefs and Editor, has long been benefited from its outstanding guest authors who have written some of the most influential posts. Readers who comment on the TSK posts also make valuable contributions by starting or joining the conversations. Similarly, by voluntarily engaging in numerous discussions on social media, researchers and journal publishing professionals also take discussions and debates forward, often offering a 360° perspective on an issue.
The seventh and final cluster probably is the voluntary contributions we make by taking part in research and assessments conducted on scholarly communication by different agencies. As we fill in online survey questionnaires or respond to interview questions when asked, we help the researchers or project staff to generate new understanding of an issue or identify fresh directions. These in turn are translated into new organizational strategies, programs, and projects on research communication.
Now I wonder, if all these voluntary contributions were to be estimated and monetized, what the current US$ 25.7 billion scholarly publishing industry would look like.
Please feel free to add any other aspects of volunteerism in scholarly publishing in the comments below. As a volunteer, do you have any interesting experience to share? A few years back, Angela Cochran shared seven tips on how to effectively manage volunteers in scholarly publishing. How does your organization engage volunteers and manage their expectations? I would love to hear your thoughts.