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.

DIY open access for chemists

Never before have I had the urge to start writing a blog post on the tube on a Monday morning, but after reading a post about the do-it-yourself open access Journal of Machine Learning Research, I have now.

To summarise the post by Stuart Shieber (although I encourage you to read it for yourself): the Journal of Machine Learning Research formed after the entire editorial board of Machine Learning quit. Since October 2010, JMLR has peer-reviewed and published over 1000 open access articles, at no cost to authors. It’s successful and well-respected—it has the highest impact factor of all journals in its category on Web of Science.

How do they do it? Volunteers. The same volunteers that peer reviewed for Kluwer’s (now Springer’s) Machine Learning and helped the publisher to make huge profits.

There are some costs, of course. The domain name—about £10 a year for .org. Hosting is provided free by MIT, but you can get fairly decent hosting for about £10 per month. Their biggest cost was a tax accountant! So far it has cost them about $10 per article—a far cry from the thousands of dollars most publishers want to publish OA.

This makes me think what on earth are publishers doing (aside from profiteering) charging at least $1500 per OA article? The JMLR demonstrates that the whole argument of scholarly publishing necessarily being an expensive process is patently false. Publishers rely on academics for their entire publishing process. The Internet—and backing of a university like MIT (which would cost them far less than a typical journal subscription)—provides academics all they need to take control of their field.

Computer scientists have the advantage over chemists of being highly proficient computer users and hence find it a lot easier to sort out typesetting with LaTeX and the installation of one of many available open source journal publishing systems. But with a bit of assistance, most chemists could submit articles in LaTeX, which is really quite straightforward. Furthermore, you only need a couple of people to get the web site going and maintain it.

The whole DIY ethos of JMLR is brilliant. Academics put so much work into their research, give it all up to publishers and then pay to read their community’s work. It’s great to see scientists publish their work themselves.

I would love chemists to start a DIY OA journal, though I think chemists, out of physicists who have arXiv and biologists and medics who have PLoS, are a conservative bunch. I’m not sure why. Shieber wrote that computer scientists are used to volunteering; I don’t think chemists are. Nonetheless, I think it could happen, especially with the backing of a department or university (I think libraries are in a good position to help here). I think this might be the way scholarly publishing moves in the future. I’d be more than happy to help get a DIY OA chemistry journal going.

*[OA]: open access *[JMLR]: Journal of Machine Learning Research *[DIY]: do-it-yourself