Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

No such thing as a free lunch

As I was saying yesterday, several people have made comments on the talk I gave in Madrid last month, as well as on the related blog post. Considering that we don’t really censor people who write to us and that we are very receptive of feedback, I find it amusing that few of these comments have been posted on our blog, and that people prefer to cut and paste from what I wrote on their own blogs, but so be it.

Most of the comments have centered on what I wrote about the fact that open-access publishing is not the only alternative to scientific publishing, but just one of several models. Some people take strong exception to this idea to the point of feeling violated by the fact that we “sell back” the science they produce. Others acknowledge that we provide a filtering service, but point to the fact that the peer-review process is free. And a third group of critics argue that the problem with scientific publishing can be summarized in three words: Nature, Science and Cell. Each of these criticisms deserve some comment, and I’ll start with the concept that peer-review is free.

Last August we published an editorial and a blog post called “Why review?”. In them, we went over some of the reasons why people choose to review articles for scientific journals despite the myriad of other things they could do with their time. Particularly relevant to our current discussion is the fact that, although it is true that scientists don’t get any money in exchange for their effort, they get enough compensation from the access they gain to privileged information about what their colleagues and their competitors are doing. For many scientists, to exert influence on the direction and standards of their field not only through their own work, but also through the comments they give their colleagues on their research is enough reward to make reviewing papers worth their while.

Now, there is information and there is information. If scientists choose to review papers for a given journal, it is because, a priori, they think that what they’re gonna read will be of legitimate interest to them. So, many scientists have different thresholds to agree to review for certain journals. Indeed, I’ve met scientists who may agree to review for Nature, but nor for Nature Medicine, and others who agree to review for Nature Medicine, but not for more specialized journals. Why? Because, when they receive an invitation to review from us, their initial expectation is that they are likely to read something of broad interest or “otherwise, Nature Medicine would not be considering this paper for possible publication”.

A corollary of this is that, if we send too many papers out for review, including some that may not be particularly interesting from the start, then we’ll start finding that more and more people turn down our invitations to review manuscripts. In other words, being less selective on what we send out for review will quickly erode the expectation of quality that our reviewers have developed. They’ll start feeling that the compensation they get from reviewing for Nature Medicine is not enough, and will find something else to do with their time.

A second corollary is that, in the absence of a certain guarantee that the paper will be of interest to a reviewer, the reviewer will almost certainly not touch it. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why those initiatives to publish papers online to let the community read them and evaluate them have not been successful so far — many of the most thoughtful reviewers will choose to not spend time on those manuscripts in the absence of some initial screening that separates the wheat from the chaff.

In summary, the peer-review process is free, but only in a most superficial way. Reviewers get compensation from evaluating manuscripts for high-profile journals, provided that an initial screening of manuscripts takes place and truly identifies the contributions that will be of interest to the reviewers. The golden rule that there is no such thing as a free lunch also applies to our trade.


Definitely not Nature Medicine’s idea of lunch. (Image by malias.)


  1. Report this comment

    Sergio Stagnaro MD said:

    As a reviewer I cannot agree completely with such as conclusion: “Reviewers get compensation from evaluating manuscripts for high-profile journals, provided that an initial screening of manuscripts takes place and truly identifies the contributions that will be of interest to the reviewers”. Really, in some cases, I had reviewed articles wherein one may read general knoweledge, generally accepted, but actually failing of scientific truth. So that I was distressing. For instance, Mediterranean Diet, when associated to physical excercise, lowers breast cancer incidence!

    Clearly neither Editors nor Authors know that Oncological Terrain and Oncological Terrain-dependent INHERITED Oncological Real Risk of breast cancer really exist. As a consequence, if women without such as congenital predisposition to breast cancer or not involved by Real Risk of cancer in mamma, do not performe physical excercise and eat what they wont, Authors conclude that OBESETY isn’t a risk factor of breast cancer.

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    Xavier Bosch said:

    Although I fear that open-access publishing is not a high priority topic for the Editor, I am using the space provided by Spoonful of Medicine to let readers know about a paper on the topic just published in EMBO reports. Although I have tried to give a balanced approach of the situation, I would not be surprised that it causes a stir. The link is:

  3. Report this comment

    JCL said:

    Thanks a lot for the link to your article, Xavier. You did a terrific job of fact finding, for which I sincerely commend you.

    In future posts, I will borrow some of the data you published to make a couple of points relevant to this discussion.

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    Cameron Neylon said:

    Just wanted to make two comments. Firstly:

    “…I find it amusing that few of these comments have been posted on our blog, and that people prefer to cut and paste from what I wrote on their own blogs.”

    That’s just the way the blogosphere works in terms of conversation. Generally an automatic comment is sent from the quoting blog to the quoted blog. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be supported on the NPG blogs.

    But the other thing is a comment on description. ‘Open Access’ is not a business model, its a description of the licence the material is made available under. ‘Author pays’ and ‘Subscriber Pays’ are business models. The majority of OA journals are actually not author pays and are subsidised from other sources. Most of the high profile OA journals do, however, use an author pays model.

    That said I think it is very helpful to be clear about what costs money and the need for transparency about what is being paid for and by whom. We need to get away from the idea that because governments pay for science it is somehow ‘free’.

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    JCL said:

    thanks for your clarifications, which are indeed helpful.

    i’m also sorry to hear that our blogs are not up to speed in terms of what happens in the blogosphere. i wish there was something i could do to modernize them, but that falls out of my sphere of influence.


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    Cameron Neylon said:

    In terms of the technology, I think people are working on it, its a question of getting different systems interoperating properly. But it is important. Its a form of citation in some ways. Look forward to more posts on this area.

    Overall I think people referee because they feel its part of the job. The problem is whether its sustainable. I know the proportion of requests I decline (or say I can’t do within the requested time) is rising.

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    Alan Dove said:

    Sorry to chime in so late on this post, but it took me awhile to condense my thoughts, which I’ve now posted on my own blog (here). The short version goes like this: Open access advocates should try to be a bit less moralistic, because their model also “charges” most scientists for access – it just does it less directly than the subscription model.

    On the technical issue with pingbacks (as they’re called in the trade), don’t feel too bad about this missing feature, Juan. It’s turned off by default on many blogs, because it’s subject to extreme abuse by spammers. A much easier problem to fix would be the minuscule editing box you give to commenters – it’s barely 30 characters wide, which makes it feel extremely cramped. Your Webmaster should be able to fix this in a matter of seconds, with a simple edit to the stylesheet.

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    john said:

    Today’s the world is returning towards natural way of curing due to the harmful effects of today’s chemical & synthetic medicines. People are deeply worried on this issue and also insisting to use natural way of curing to get health & security.