One suggestion for a new model of academic publishing

Problems exist with various aspects of academic publishing: open access, peer review, publication bias. I’m not going to go through all the issues here, as they’ve been covered eloquently elsewhere. I suggest reading The Scholarly Kitchen. Anyway, here’s me weighing in with a possible new model that could solve most of the problems with academic publishing*.

A simple regulatory framework

Regulation is costly to maintain and enforce, so it’s often best to try and keep it to a minimum. Nevertheless, academic publishing is big business, so pussyfooting around won’t achieve much; strong policies need to be drawn up. In my proposed model, research resulting from government funding (and government funding resulting from research) should be subject to two conditions:

  1. All outputs must be published with open access and
  2. <peer review of all publications must be handled by an independent third party.

These two requirements would be enforced by bodies that fund research, such as the NIHR and Research Councils UK, or the NIH in the US. They would also be necessary criteria for inclusion in REF (and its international equivalents). We’re close to achieving the first criteria, but I’m not aware of any discussion of the second.

The ideal outcome

I think this environment could result in desirable outcomes. The new pressure upon academics from universities and funding bodies to conform to the two conditions above would lend to a system in which academics cease to submit articles to journals. Instead, journals would ‘bid’ for papers. They would compete in various ways; on quality, distribution and price. The price would be in the form of the publication fees charged; The American Economic Review could demand a higher fee than The Journal of Health Economics. New journals looking to build credibility could even pay the academics for the right to publish their paper. Universities would pay publication fees on behalf of academics. It’s also likely that they would fund the peer review process through subscription fees to the companies providing it. A lot of time and money would be saved by enabling the transferability of reviews and removing the need for academics to make multiple submissions. I also suspect that, not having to go through this rigmarole, academics would be more inclined to publish negative results.

In this world, the process of publication would go as follows:

  1. Academic writes paper;
  2. Academic submits paper to peer review company;
  3. Peer review company obtains reviews from numerous academics, including reviews of reviews;
  4. Journal editors are given access to the manuscript and all reviews;
  5. Journal editors ‘bid’ for the right to publish the article;
  6. Academic selects journal for publication;
  7. Paper is published.

The necessary organisations for this model already exist. Creative commons provides a variety of open access licences. Companies like OAK have popped up to deal with the administration of publication fees. Peerage of science is a company providing portable peer review, with growing interest from open access publishers. As the market expands, other companies would inevitably enter the arena.

Maybe the ‘simple regulatory framework’ set out above wouldn’t result in the ‘ideal outcome’ described… but I reckon it might.

*this model may very well have been proposed elsewhere, but I am unaware of it.

doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.1101321

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20 thoughts on “One suggestion for a new model of academic publishing

  1. As I understand it, the suggestion sounds quite related to what episciences.org and selectedpapers.net are hoping to achieve.
    Other “peer review companies” could be: libreapp.org and peerevaluation.org, and pubpeer.com as well as publons.com could also be part of that game, although they are until now mostly being used to comment on papers already published in traditional journals.

  2. Thank you Chris for your ideas. I agree with most of what you suggest, but oppose to the concept of a “market” or “companies” for evaluating the world’s scientific output. We believe this can be achieved freely, openly and dynamically by the academic community without intermediaries. Evaluation of science and individual scholars should not become a market. That’s what created most of the problems with the current publishing model anyway. What good would it do to substitute one master with another. More on our ideas at our organization’s website.

    1. Why throw out the baby with the bath water? Sure, the market in it’s current form has failed. It does not provide what we want it to provide. But this doesn’t mean that a market in publishing is intrinsically bad. Take Elsevier as an example; no doubt one of the most vilified publishers. Their website, ScienceDirect, is great! It provides brilliant functionality. It’s the only site I can think of that allows me to export articles to my Kindle, for example. Features such as this that go beyond satisfying the minimum remit of a publisher are the result of competition. We should harness this to achieve our desired aims, not reject it completely.

      I do not think that a market-free environment for academic publishing would be a successful one. Who would fund and support peer-review, dissemination and access? The government? And to whom would they be accountable? Themselves? This, more so, would be substituting one master with another. Such a set-up would not be conducive to progress in academic publishing.

      1. I totally agree with you. I just object to the publishing industry controlling the evaluation of the world’s scientific output. We argue that peer review can be free, open, transparent and author-guided, which means it requires no funding. If you think about it in the current model peer review is provided for free and what we pay for is its “handling” by journal editors. Is there any reason why you need a journal editor to ask you to review a paper? Wouldn’t you be willing to review a colleague’s work if he/she personally asked you offering you proper recognition for your assessment (something journal editor’s don’t do)?

        Publishers can still be useful for other services, such the ones you mention, and of course they should charge for these services. But monopolizing scientific evaluation is against the interests of everyone else: scholars, science and the society in general.

        1. Ah, apologies, I misunderstood. Certainly I agree that publishers should not handle peer review (point 2 in my ‘simple regulatory framework’). Nevertheless, I still think a competitive market in peer review could be fruitful. Even if companies could not compete on price (you suggest a fixed price of £0), they could compete on speed and quality. Though without a profit motive it’s difficult to see how the quality of peer review might improve.

        2. We may like it or not, but there are going to be commercial players in the peer review arena as well. I saw this example just today: http://venturebeat.com/2013/10/23/academia-edu-acquires-plasmyd-to-bring-peer-review-into-the-21st-century/. That means we have a market. Since there is a market we should find out what this is going to mean to a future “open review” eco-system. I prefer non-profits driven by scientists themselves, such as LIBRE, but it seems there are going to be commercial players nonetheless.
          Even if authors would prefer a “free, independent” platform to a commercial platform that may even cost money to use, the commercial platform might still be able to dominate due to its ability to leverage an existing user base. A publisher such as Elsevier might be able to dominate an open peer review “market” through for example Mendeley…

          1. This is likely to happen. But as long as there are scientists opting for the community-based alternative, initiatives like ours will have a reason to exist. I would like to see many platforms with different flavors for different tastes and a central organization of all reviews by a meta-engine using a common identification system.

                1. Looks like an interesting paper, but there’s nothing ‘natural’ about the selection process. What you’re talking about are market forces. It’s more Adam Smith than Charles Darwin.

                  1. Why would you say “market” forces? Where do you see the market in an ecology of free knowledge where anyone can choose the most fit ideas and build upon them?

                    1. Because the best ideas would proliferate through the forces of supply and demand, not random mutations in design. A market doesn’t require money or profit if that’s the cause of your aversion!

                  2. Just curious, but if you were to consider the various attempts at new review/publishing platforms random in the sense that no-one knows beforehand what is going to “work” and become popular and what is not? Could it then be considered “natural selection” understood as “survival of the fittest”, i.e. the platforms that for some reason turn out to be most popular among scholars?

                    1. No aversion towards money, profit and markets at all! I am very happy to get paid for goods I create or for services I provide. I wish I felt publishers offer me some service, other than their brand, when I pay APCs or hit upon a paywall.
                      Regarding your comment, random mutations are not what mostly characterizes the theory of evolution. It is the environmental pressure that makes only the best survive and leads to extinction of the weakest. Today the knowledge selection process is not based on the quality, or “fitness” of the ideas, but on the reputation of the journal where they were published. This indeed depends on market forces and unfortunately leads to the treatment of knowledge as a material good. More on this in my recent post on the LSE blog.

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