Will Nature’s Lust Force A Change In Peer Review?

Nature is one sexy item. All the top scientists ogle it and want to possess it. It wears a slick, glossy cover, speaks only in seductive tones, and feels its company is so valuable that it charges scientists $17,000 to get between the covers.

That figure is for what Nature is asking the University of California and other university libraries to store a year’s worth of copies, including (partial) electronic access. They used to want a quarter of that fee, but since they figured out that they are so desirable, they’re bumping up the cover price to—as president O would say—unprecedented levels.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (linked from A&LD), the UC system is fighting back. The chief librarians are floating the “B” word.

As in boycott, an activity of such familiarity to Californians that the state provides checklist refrigerator magnets so that earnest residents can recall who the many people/businesses/governments they’re protesting against.

The librarians are asking UC profs to cease submitting articles to Nature and its sister publications, resign from editorial boards, and to just say no to requests to review articles.

Now, you can ask UC profs to protest nearly anything, especially if that thing is related to Western high culture or tradition. But here they’re being asked to protest against themselves. Having an article in Nature counts as much as having three or four elsewhere. Being listed on the editorial board is practically a tenure guarantee.

Still, according to the Chronicle, similar protests have happened before. And if anybody can protest, it’s a Californian.

And do you know, in this case, I am with them. Nature has the absolute, inviolable right to charge whatever they wish for their publications. If they want one-million per, why, God bless them. But I have the right not to pay.

Besides, in the case of Nature papers, I can safely ignore them and wait for the full paper to appear elsewhere, such as on the authors’ websites. Nature papers are brief; most are no more than three or four pages and present only a precis of the research. Papers which expand the concepts nearly always appears elsewhere in time.

The UC and other university libraries pay about $4,000 to $8,000 for each journal subscription. The average number of publications subscribed to is about 8,000 per library. That’s about $40 million a year, which is, even in California, big bucks. Add that figure up over the hundreds of libraries, and we’re talking real money.

Scientific publishing is a lucrative trade. About once a week I receive an email announcing the creation of yet another title, all with names like “The Far East’s North-West’s Corner Journal of Modern Thought”. A little less often, I receive emails asking me to submit my name for consideration to the editorial board of these journals. The emails always mention what an honor it is to be asked.

That the number of journals proliferates without end is no surprise. The number of universities and colleges is also increasing, as are the sizes of the extant ones. That, of course, means more professors, who must publish, publish, publish. Their papers must appear somewhere, and since there just isn’t room in the old journals, new ones must appear.

Those papers all undergo “peer review”, which is a system whereby an editor (usually unpaid; sometimes provided with funds for a secretary if the journal is large enough) reads through a mountain of dross, and sends most of it out to referees. The referees receive $0 per paper for their efforts.

The authors of the papers that are accepted are sometimes asked to pay page charges—-yes, you read that correctly. The authors pay for the publishing; but this usually only happens in journals put out by non-profit professional organizations. The libraries are still charged for subscriptions, though.

Authors also sign over their copyright to the journals, a very strange thing to do, especially since we all violate those copyrights. We need to! Without stealing liberally from other people’s work, there would be no progress.

Authors are even charged for so-called open-access publishing; the page charges are hefty, too. Open-access journals are accessible freely for anybody, even libraries (there may be exceptions). The page charges fund the editorial process (secretaries, fact-finding junkets, and lunches) and server fees.

The solution? Eliminate peer-review as it is now known. Return to the old system in which it was non-existent except in the weak sense, where editors alone would decide what was worthy of reading. Such a thing can be overlaid on, for example, arxiv.org. Call it the Editor’s Choice Arxiv (by subject)—but keep arxiv as it is.

Besides, as everybody who actually takes part in peer review already knows, the system is at best only a crude filter of truth. We will do no worse than eliminating journals and using arxiv.

But how will departments know whom to promote when they no longer can just count published papers? Sadly, quite, quite sadly, they’ll have to return to the hard work of judging each applicant on his merit. Hell, teaching might even become important again.

4 Comments

  1. Ah, the wacky world of “academia”. A very, very large crocodile, indeed. Would Professor Charles Dodgson be shocked or pleased today to see how far through the looking glass his vocation has plunged?

  2. Nature was once a reputable journal but for years now it has been largely trash., i.e. junk science. The peer review system has failed, not so much because it is a limiting gatekeeper, but because more and more garbage gets through. The gate is off the hinges. As volume has gone up, quality has plummeted. In some journals, more than I care to name, junk science is all that gets published.

    Librarians should not only boycott Nature, they should ban it, filter it out like they do other forms of pornography and obscenity. Students should study good science, real science, and not be confused and disoriented by claptrap pseudo-science.

  3. In my (thus far very limited) experience, when peer review works well, it can improve a paper substantially. The mechanism is much the same as that at work when you ask a friend or close colleague to read a paper just for the sake of having another set of eyes look it over. Obviously, peer review isn’t a panacea, but it does have positive qualities. I wonder if (or hope that) there is a way to keep the good parts and minimize the bad.

  4. noahpoah,

    What you say is correct; further, I will say that peer review nearly always improves a paper. But what I’m suggesting is that the “paper” is not the goal and that knowledge is. True, a well written paper will often convey that knowledge better than a poorly written one, but not always. But there are too many papers—far, far too many. Reducing the number of formal papers—those creations with fundamental insight—is a goal I have.

    Most written work, peer-reviewed or not, should never rise above the level of “pre-print”. I also want to see a reduction in the weight of “original” research in faculty promotion, and the only way I can see to do that is to remove the paper mechanism. I know—probably never work; any system would almost certainly devolve back to what we have.

    Too, our prejudice is towards the scientific, where papers, even bad ones, even pre-prints, have at least one useful thing to say. But don’t forget the rest of academia: areas like sociology, “education”, feminist “studies”, and on and on. Peer-review only exacerbates the worst here.

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