“Privatizing” the Reviewer Commons?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgLet’s face it. The current journal system is slowly breaking down – in Ecology if not in other disciplines as well. The number of submissions is going up exponentially. At the same time, journals are finding it harder and harder to find reviewers. Statistics such as editors contacting 10 reviewers to find 3 are not uncommon. People don’t respond, they take a long time to review, or just take a long time and THEN don’t respond leading to a need for still more reviewers to be found (this has held up 2 of my pubs for 3+ extra months). The consequences are inevitable. I’ve heard (and experienced) more and more stories of people submitting to journals for which their work is perfectly suited, only to have them rejected without review for trivial, if any, reason. (I know the plural of anecdote is not data – see refs in the article below for a more rigorous discussion).

Even if an article is reviewed, once rejected, it begins the revision cycle afresh at a new journal, starting the entire reviewer finding-and-binding process over again, yielding considerable redundancy of effort. This is slowing the pace of science, and the pace of our careers – a huge cost for young scientists.

How do we solve the tragedy of the reviewing commons?

Jeremy Fox and Owen Petchy lay out an intriguing suggestion (or see here for free pdf) and couple it with a petition. If you’re convinced by their article, go sign it now.

In essence, they want to “privatize” the reviewer commons. They propose the creation of a public online Pubcred bank. To submit a paper, one pays three credits. For every review, they receive one credit. This maintains a minimum 3:1 submit:review ratio which we should all be maintaining. Along with this, they propose that reviews are passed from journal to journal if a paper is rejected. They authors cannot hide from comments, hoping to roll the dice and get past critical reviewers. This lessens the workload for everyone and boosts science.

There are of course a million details to be worked out – what about new authors (they propose an allowable overdraft), multi-authored papers (split the cost), bad reviews (no credits for you!), etc.? Fox and Petchy lay out a delightfully thoughtful and detailed response to all of these (although I’m sure more will crop up – nothing is perfect).

I think a Pubcred system is absolutely essential to the forward progress of modern science, and I whole-heartedly support this proposal (and signed the petition). At the same time, I think there is a second problem worth thinking about that is related to the proliferation of articles.

Namely, the review and re-review cycle. We all start by submitting to the highest impact journal that we think will take our articles. This can lead to a cycle of review and re-review that takes time and energy from reviewers, and can be gamed by authors who do not revise before resubmitting (who among us has not seen this happen?).

For this reason, at a minimum, the sharing of rejection reviews from journal-to-journal and authors being forced to respond is *ESSENTIAL* to the Pubcred system working. On the other hand, Pubcreds are going to require a large co-ordinating effort between journals – many of whom are published by different organizations. If we are going to go to this trouble already, one wonders if a system where authors submit articles to a common reviewing pool, and journals select articles after review and revision (asking for any additional revisions as needed) as proposed by Stefano Allesina might be even more efficient.

Then again, let’s come back to the real world. Such a system would require a sea-change in the world of academic publishing, and I don’t think we’re there yet. The Pubcred bank will require its own journal compliance hurdles in the first place, and a need for multiple publishers to agree and co-ordinate their actions. No small feat. Given its technical simplicity and huge benefits to journals, this task will hopefully be minor. Implementing Pubcreds gets us a good part of the way there, and begins to tackle what is rapidly becoming a large problem lurking in the background. It won’t solve everything (or maybe it will!), but it should certainly staunch the current tide of problems.

So please, read the article, and if you agree, go sign the petition already!

Update: For more thoughtful discussion see this post at Jabberwocky Ecology and a thoughtful response by Fox and Petchey.

Fox, J., & Petchey, O. (2010). Pubcreds: Fixing the Peer Review Process by “Privatizing” the Reviewer Commons Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 91 (3), 325-333 DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-91.3.325

Stefano Allesina (2009). Accelerating the pace of discovery by changing the peer review algorithm arXiv.org arXiv: 0911.0344v1