Are you an academic? Want to do less, and make your research accessible to all? Read on.

Academic publishing companies make vast profits by selling access to scientific research papers. The industry had around 23 billion US dollars in revenue in 2017, and the profit margins are outrageous. Researchers do the work, other researchers (as part of their service to the community) then peer-review the manuscript to ensure its integrity. And then a publishing company turns all of this publicly funded time and money into corporate profit.

The work in these papers is mostly paid for by the public, and yet it is not made publicly available; it is placed behind paywalls. Most academics are aware of this situation, and are aware of its absurdity. And yet we keep publishing our work in these journals. Why?

“14 million scientists entrust Elsevier to publish their results, and 800,000 scientists donate their time to help them with editing and peer-review. “

Stephen Buranyi — The Guardian

The short answer is esteem. The longer answer is that it matters where work gets published. A paper in Science or Nature has your colleagues raising their eyebrows and quietly assigning some god-like quality to the work. This paper will be read (or at least skimmed), and it will be cited many times by your peers. The same paper published in Copeia will receive polite noises, a quiet assumption that it must be very niche and uninteresting, and stands a high chance of never being read. The same paper.

This hierarchy of journals has become a shorthand way of assessing the quality of a researcher’s work and their standing in the field. Those who publish in Nature receive the esteem of their peers; they receive job offers and promotions; they win grants. Those who publish in Copeia will struggle to win this esteem and its attendant professional benefits. The reality is that most of your colleagues — on hiring committees, promotion and grant panels — will never read any of your papers. They will assess the quality of your work by the journals you publish in.

Academics are acutely aware of this situation. They sit on these committees and panels, they are using the same shorthand as everyone else. Academics notice when they sign away their copyright, but the rational choice is for them to publish their work in the “best” journal possible. The cost of that rational decision is borne by the public

Esteem skewers academics with an additional two barbs. First, editorial roles. These are a mark of some seniority in the research community. As an editor for an academic journal you volunteer your time to manage the integrity of the peer review process, and to act as a gatekeeper for the journal; only allowing manuscripts through to publication that are of sufficient quality and merit. Editorial roles are important, and you can be sure that being an editor at Nature carries several truckloads more esteem than being an editor at Copeia. Esteem-sensitive academics jostle for editorial positions at highly-esteemed journals. Publishing companies get the learning and experience and hard work of academic editors for free, for a whiff of esteem.

The second remaining barb is in peer-review. Reviewing a manuscript can be a considerable job, but it is always done for free; part of an academic’s service to their community. Here again, however, we see the hierarchy of journal esteem subtly assert itself. When an editor at Nature asks a researcher to review a manuscript, the researcher feels honoured. This must be an important piece of work (why else would it be at review at Nature?), so it is an important job to review this manuscript, and you are honoured to be entrusted with this sacred task. When you are asked to review a manuscript for Copeia, it’s just a job you didn’t really want.

There is, of course, substantial feedback in this system. The top journals get the best editors who easily find hard working reviewers who are themselves typically top academics. As a consequence, the manuscripts sent to these journals (those that are not immediately rejected, anyway) get considerable attention (and usually improvement) before publication. The bottom-ranked journals still attract editors, but these editors struggle to find reviewers for their manuscripts and so these manuscripts are typically reviewed by junior researchers, handled by overworked editors, and will not have been as well polished before publication. Thus, the esteem hierarchy does generate a slight quality hierarchy, justifying its casual use by your peers as a shorthand for quality. The esteem hierarchy is a very stable one; it is self-perpetuating.

The esteem hierarchy is no accident. It has been carefully tended by clever businesspeople who saw a way to get an edge in the market. It was deliberately built by publishers from about 1974 onwards, and now reaches deep into the heart of our learned institutions. Its impact on science, and on scientists, has been profound.

Exiting the esteem trap

This competition for esteem, and the shorthand provided by the esteem hierarchy are the fundamental reasons academics will not walk away from corporate publishers. The publishers own all the esteem engines: the high-esteem journals that academics are so desperate to be associated with. And being associated with high-esteem journals is a rational aim given that employment, promotion, and funding prospects all rely heavily on this shorthand for quality.

So we are trapped. We would prefer not to have publicly-funded work rendered inaccessible to the public, but we are compelled to support the business model of publishers because they own the esteem engines, and esteem matters.

We are trapped, but we are also smart, principled, and we don’t like cages. So what can we do? Well, here is a suggestion: let’s stop doing peer review for paywalls. This is an action that everyone in the community can take; there is zero esteem cost to the individual in taking this action, but its consequences are powerful.

First, let’s say one of the Olympian Editors asks you to review a manuscript for one of the profit-making esteem engines. You record on your CV that you have been asked to review for this journal (esteem points!), but you politely decline the invitation, explaining that you would rather your professional service go towards open science initiatives.

The editor at the esteem factory finds that her job has just become a lot harder than it used to be. It is hard to find reviewers, and the reviews aren’t as thorough or as good anymore. She keeps the line on her CV stating that she has been an editor at X (esteem points!), and then steps down at the next opportunity. She has better things to do than spend her days cajoling reluctant reviewers. And so it goes.

Being a discerning reviewer has nothing but benefits. There are no esteem points lost for the individual, and there is a higher turnover of editorial staff at high-esteem journals. This turnover means more opportunity and less competition for these positions, and it means the esteem hierarchy is flattened somewhat because, well, who hasn’t been an editor for Nature, and, besides, the stuff published there isn’t as good as it used to be. Overburdened reviewers have an important reason to do less reviewing; they are, through individual decision, changing the face of academic publishing and making science accessible to all.

So who do we review for?

Who do we review for, and who do we decline? Well, that will be an individual choice. The gold standard, to my mind, is to review pre-prints. These are guaranteed to be accessible to all because they are publicly available before and after peer-review. Peer Community is an organisation run by academics that runs a peer review service for pre-prints. The service is every bit as rigorous (if not more so) than any editorial service offered by a journal. The preprint will ultimately either be rejected, or recommended following peer review. And the entire review process is published online. The authors are then free to take their fully peer-reviewed manuscript and publish it in a journal, or not; the choice is theirs.

After this, we might review for journals that make everything open access, and which do this cheaply (or for free; see Diamond Open Access). The bulk of Open Access (as promoted by the publishing companies) has simply shifted the exorbitant fee for access back towards the researcher. This creates a paywall between research and publication, and cooks a fundamental conflict of interest into the associated peer review process. The fee for publication typically scales with the esteem hierarchy: esteem is now, literally, for sale. So, review for open access journals, but do so in a discerning manner. Look at their publication charges; do they seem reasonable, or accessible?

We might also review for the society journals, because many of these have a profit-sharing arrangement with the society who founded the journal. Most professional societies would use this income to support conference attendance for students, and to provide grant schemes and, in other ways, support their field. Choose your own adventure here, but it seems an uneasy relationship for an organisation committed to promoting the field to do so by placing the business of the field behind a corporate paywall. The profit sharing arrangement is rarely made explicit (what percentage goes to the society?), so you might have to ask about the arrangement at your next AGM. Perhaps your society should be asking for a better deal, or for lower subscription/publication fees? Perhaps your society should be supporting open peer review pathways such as Peer Community. Perhaps your society should be starting another journal.

Finally, we should just avoid peer-reviewing for journals that are not connected with a society and which are purely for profit. This is most of them.


P.S. Copeia is an excellent journal with a long and noble tradition. I just chose it as a counterpoint because, unless you are a fish or reptile nerd, you have probably never heard of it.

P.P.S If you would like a form letter for politely declining reviewer requests, see here.

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1 Comment

  1. Yes! We’re developing a collective action platform for exactly this purpose: freeourknowledge.org. You can pledge to change your publishing and review behaviours (e.g. publish exclusively open access), but only after a critical mass of support is reached in your field (you set the threshold). This strategy is designed to ‘kickstart’ support for new publishing models and initiatives, while mitigating risks to vulnerable researchers (e.g. ECRs). Check out freeourknowledge.org for more info and to make a pledge today!

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