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.)