On the value of journal editors (and why green open access won’t work)

Previously I argued that traditional journals should be abandoned and green open access repositories like arXiv are the way forward. More recently I praised the “DIY” open access journal The Journal of Machine Learning Research run by researchers, writing that chemists should do something similar.

But now I think I’m wrong because I’ve underestimated the value of journal editors.

On Stephen Curry’s blog a commenter said:

“The current system of peer-reviewed journals is altogether very flawed. … [A]t the end of the day, the journals make millions just formatting, laying them out and sending a few emails. This just cannot be right.”

6 months ago I would have probably agreed. Anonymous Publishing Employee replied (it’s worth reading in full) saying that they are wrong because they underestimate the work a journal really does. Editors have to decide whether a paper fits in with their journal and is worth sending for review, obviously requiring technical knowledge. If it is worth sending they have to decide who to send it to, requiring personal knowledge of the scientists. A lot of administrative time is spent chasing up reviewers, but once the reviews are in the editor has to make a decision or repeat the review process again. If accepted, subsequent copy editing and layout takes time (money) and there are other indirect costs too, e.g. IT and rent. The main expense, they believe, is salaries (not that surprising).

Before I’ve said that peer review would work in green OA repos, but now I think I was wrong. Editors have a lot of specialist knowledge that ensures the right people review papers. It’s also required to finally decide whether to accept or reject a paper. I now doubt that a comparable level of peer review would happen in a repository. There’s no incentive for scientists to review post-publication. With a journal, there’s a certain amount of flattery involved when a scientist is asked to review by an editor. In effect, the editors drive the peer review process forwards, whereas it might never get started in a repo.

Furthermore, if we only had green OA repositories there would be another loss that I’ve never considered before: the commentaries, reviews, editorials and research highlights that complement the original research articles.

Screenshot from the current issue web page for the latest issue of Nature Chemistry

These are written or commissioned by editors. Recently I’ve really enjoyed the extra content in Nature Chemistry. An interview with Chief Editor Stuart Cantrill goes into more depth about the work behind the scenes. Lab on a Chip is another journal that I like to keep track of—obviously much more specialised than Nature Chemistry—and it has similar articles.

A complete shift to green OA would result in the loss of this valuable content. Websites or blogs might spring up to take it’s place, but I doubt it would be of the same calibre. It would be a real shame to lose it because it’s a great way to broaden one’s knowledge and stumble across interesting work.

Overall I think I was wrong about green OA repositories. Journal editors (rather than the “journal” in itself) are a valuable asset to the peer review process and scientific endeavour as a whole. Still, more could be done to enhance the transparency of the peer review, but I think that open access publication simply won’t succeed post-publication peer review in green repositories.

11 thoughts on “On the value of journal editors (and why green open access won’t work)”

  1. Sorry to be so blunt but: What a load of BS. 🙂

    All of this sounds about right until you think that the math and physics communities works basically on arXiv every day since more than 10 years. Yes, they still publish (often) on peer-reviewed journals because that’s what it counts for IF, h-index and the like. But what physicists read and discuss are the preprints.

    That said, there’s no reason you couldn’t have an OA repo with (also) subsequent peer review: there’s no reason editors of the repo couldn’t be nominated collectively and openly by the scientific community, for example.

    About commentaries, editorials, highlights etc., well, these are good (even if blogs and websites are already taking their place), but who says one couldn’t still have journals devoted to exactly that?

    1. Sure, physicists read and discuss pre-prints on arXiv, but what evidence do you have of proper post-publication peer review? I chat about papers that I see online to my colleagues but I don’t sit down, properly review them and then send my comments to an independent third party (i.e. an editor). If physicists think a paper is a load of rubbish, it stays on arXiv. Do you have to then peer review yourself every reference you see to an arXiv paper?

      I don’t understand how you say maths and physics “works” on arXiv but then that “there’s no reason you couldn’t have an OA repo with (also) subsequent peer review”. So does maths and physics not require peer review to function? What is to prevent your repo being filled with nonsense?

      The idea of editors being nominated from the community is totally unsustainable and reminds me of the UK government’s “Big Society” concept. Do you expect academics to “edit” repos for free? In what time? What would “editing” a repo even entail? Furthermore, how do you ensure editors aren’t biased against particular researchers, or what if a controversial theory is proposed and simply batted out of the repo by the community (e.g. something like the discovery of quasicrystals which eventually got the Nobel Prize)? There are a lot of issues with post-publication review—the main one being whether it really happens as thoroughly as in journals.

      I don’t think blogs and web sites are anywhere near replacing the supplementary content in journals. I don’t know any staff or postgraduates in my DTC or department who read blogs about academic subjects. I can’t even think of any chemistry blogs that approach anything near the articles in Nature Chemistry or Lab on a Chip. Who would edit and publish such a journals devoted to commentary? Who would pay for it? Or is everyone meant to work for free?

  2. Peer review and journal publishing are both corrupt systems.

    Scientists are competing for publications in top journals, but asked to judge the “impact” (an entirely subjective concept) of contributions of others in the same competition. Its like asking gymnasts to judge each other at the olympics, anonymously. This is incredibly open to manipulation.

    As for journals, all your points regarding editors may be correct, but who sets the institutional contribution fees? Why are they at a level unrelated to the cost of publication? Are they benefiting disproportionately from the rise of bibleometrics in the last 2 decades? Has the push for publications disconnected from research outcomes? Is this industry providing benefit to society proportionate to the amount of public funds they consume, or simply lining their own pockets? I urge you to consider these questions.

    I think the writing is on the wall for journals (pun intended). More modern means of non-centralized information distribution will find them obsolete. What would be the cost to institutions to internally check for scientific accuracy and host a publication online? The only thing you stand to lose is the commodity of “impact-factor” or the prestige of publishing under a big publishing house banner (nature anyone?), but there are increasingly other ways to establish credibility.

  3. “I don’t understand how you say maths and physics “works” on arXiv but then that “there’s no reason you couldn’t have an OA repo with (also) subsequent peer review”. So does maths and physics not require peer review to function? What is to prevent your repo being filled with nonsense?”

    First of all, peer reviewed journals are already filled with nonsense, as you probably know – yet the system doesn’t collapse because of that.

    The point is that if you are an expert in the subject you can see if a paper is rubbish or not. And if you can’t see it, then peers won’t as well, so peer review won’t help you. That a lot of pseudoscience happens to pop on arXiv doesn’t make arXiv less useful or powerful. Rubbish articles on arXiv just meet the same fate of rubbish articles on journals: they are ignored.

    “The idea of editors being nominated from the community is totally unsustainable”

    Yeah, sure, so unsustainable that arXiv already works this way. From the Wikipedia page on arXiv: “Although the arXiv is not peer reviewed, a collection of moderators for each area review the submissions and may recategorize any that are deemed off-topic.”

    However I never said that they should be unpaid volunteers. They should be paid, temporary, full-time positions.

    “Furthermore, how do you ensure editors aren’t biased against particular researchers”

    LOL. Like it doesn’t happen with journals. You’re just a young 1st year graduate student, so probably you think journals are honoured and honest, but trust me, that’s not how it works.

    At least with a publicly nomined and temporary committee we wouldn’t rely on the internal quirks of Nature or Science publishing houses to decide what gets published or not, but it would be a much more transparent process.

    I don’t think blogs and web sites are anywhere near replacing the supplementary content in journals.

    They’re getting close. And again, well, if you are so worried, let’s repurpose journals to publish such commentaries, and perhaps select some paper from the preprint archives. What’s so worrying about that?

    “I don’t know any staff or postgraduates in my DTC or department who read blogs about academic subjects.”

    That’s their problem, not the blogs’ one. They miss a lot.

    “Who would edit and publish such a journals devoted to commentary? Who would pay for it?”

    First you say that such content is invaluable and everybody wants it, now you can’t think about who would pay for it? Try at the very least to be consistent with your own thoughts 🙂

  4. And guess who makes the editor in 95% of all journals? Scientists donating their time to the journal. There’s absolutely no reason why scientists can’t keep doing this for libraries, instead of publishers.

    Going from publishers to libraries would leave libraries with an estimated 4 billion US$ every single year, which would normally go to publishers’ shareholders in profit. That’s more than the research budget of some countries.

    And why should journals like Scientific American stop publishing great articles and blog posts about recently published papers? That part I completely don’t get. What do journals have to do with the news media? Only because some journal overcharge so much for their paper publishing, that they can afford to PR the work that they got for free from us to begin with? The unsolicited news we pay for with our subscriptions are probably the worst part of the whole publishing business: that’s the part you actually should pay for, but this is the part corporations such as NPG give away for free – because they know they can charge the libraries many times more than they ever could charge anyone for their PR.

  5. I think some of you have missed my point and have confused it with a defence of the scholarly publishing industry in its current state.

    I’ve argued that the role of editor is necessary for management of peer review and selectivity over what goes into what journals. Having someone who is there to curate research and ensure some level of quality in what goes down in the scientific record is useful to everyone. Whether they do this for Nature Publishing Group or Imperial College London’s Library doesn’t matter. I don’t think it would happen as effectively post-publication or without a full-time paid position.

    @Bjoern:

    I never said SciAm should stop publishing! It’s not a journal either. I’m referring to technical news that is intended for academics, not the general public, and I didn’t say it should stop publishing that either (more the complete opposite!).

    @Devicerandom:

    Moderation to ensure that a submission is in the right category is not peer review. Since you like quoting Wikipedia so much: “The majority of the e-prints are also submitted to journals for publication.” Including, as I can see from your publications list, all of your published work. If arXiv is enough, then why bother submitting?

    No need for the ad hominem attack either and it’ll be deleted next time.

  6. What I was asking was: why do you think the “technical news” as you call them would stop if we stopped publishing in journals? They would likely stopped to be published for free, which is indeed how it should be. Our work is already paid for, the journalists’ isn’t.

    Only to re-iterate, if you abolished all journals without professional editors, 90% of scientists wouldn’t have a place to publish anything at all and those who do publish would only publish a small fraction of their work. The rest is done by volunteer editors (e.g., I volunteer for Frontiers and PLoS One).

  7. I never said that technical news would stop if we stopped publishing in journals. I said:

    “A complete shift to green OA would result in the loss of this valuable content. Websites or blogs might spring up to take it’s place, but I doubt it would be of the same calibre. It would be a real shame to lose it because it’s a great way to broaden one’s knowledge and stumble across interesting work.”

    If we no longer had journals as they are at present, with editors commissioning/writing all the extra features, we’d lose out. (Although not all journals do have extra features, particularly the crappy ones, and I wouldn’t be sad to see them go.)

    I agree with your point that we should pay for these extra features rather than pay for the research. If Nat. Chem. went OA for it’s research articles I’d probably still pay for the extra content out of my own money (at at much lower rate, obviously).

    To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have open access. I think OA is a good thing. I’m saying that OA will work best if papers go through peer review (but more transparently) with coordination by a professional editor, into journals that are professional edited rather than dumped into repositories.

  8. “Moderation to ensure that a submission is in the right category is not peer review.”

    You are confounding “peer reviewers” with “editors”. Editors don’t peer review. Editors judge if a paper may be fit for the journal and, if yes, send papers to reviewers -who work, guess what, free.

    So the arXiv moderation is already doing the first half of the work. If we had fully paid editors instead of volunteer moderators, nominated by the academic community, they could also do the other part.

    How to pay them? Well, just reroute the money we now spend in journal subscriptions.

    If arXiv is enough, then why bother submitting?

    Because unfortunately, as I said in my first comment, arXiv is not still completely accepted for the metrics that decide of a scientist career. You still need to publish on official, ISI-approved peer reviewed journals for your CV -calculations of h-index, impact factor etc.

    But my point is that you could have a peer reviewed arXiv, if you so wish. Let’s have paid editorial committees for the various subdisciplines, with 1 or 2-year length appointments, let’s implement a “peer reviewed” flag on arXiv and let’s put the peer reviewed section of the arXiv on ISI. At this point arXiv basically becomes an OA peer reviewed journal, with the difference that 1)its editorial committee is elected by the scientific community, not by a private publishing house 2)it also stores preprints and drafts.

    No need for the ad hominem attack either and it’ll be deleted next time.

    I am sorry -which ad hominem attack? If something sounded like one, I apologize.

    1. You’re just arguing about terminology.

      In your second to last paragraph you basically argue for what we have right now, which is what I’ve said is good rather than only using green OA.

      Preprints you already have with arXiv. Then we have peer review with gold OA, where you have editors.

      It seems that your problem lies with who pays the editors rather than the publishing model.

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