What is the cost of peer review? Can we afford (not to have) high impact journals?
Late last year the Research Information Network held a workshop in London to launch a report, and in many ways more importantly, a detailed economic model of the scholarly publishing industry. The model aims to capture the diversity of the scholarly publishing industry and to isolate costs and approaches to enable the user to ask questions such as “what is the consequence of moving to a 95% author pays model” as well as to simply ask how much money is going in and where it ends up. I’ve been meaning to write about this for ages but a couple of things in the last week have prompted me to get on and do it.
The first of these was an announcement by email [can’t find a copy online at the moment] by the EPSRC, the UK’s main funder of physical sciences and engineering. While the requirement for a two page enconomic impact statement for each grant proposal got more headlines, what struck me as much more important were two other policy changes. The first was that, unless specifically invited, rejected proposals can not be resubmitted. This may seem strange, particularly to US researchers, where a process of refinement and resubmission, perhaps multiple times, is standard, but the BBSRC (UK biological sciences funder) has had a similar policy for some years. The second, frankly somewhat scarey change, is that some proportion of researchers that have a history of rejection will be barred from applying altogether. What is the reason for these changes? Fundamentally the burden of carrying out peer review on all of the submitted proposals is becoming too great.
The second thing was that, for the first time, I have been involved in refereeing a paper for a Nature Publishing Group journal. Now I like to think, like I guess everyone else does, that I do a reasonable job of paper refereeing. I wrote perhaps one and a half sides of A4 describing what I thought was important about the paper and making some specific criticisms and suggestions for changes. The paper went around the loop and on the second revision I saw what the other referees had written; pages upon pages of closely argued and detailed points. Now the other referees were much more critical of the paper but nonetheless this supported a suspicion that I have had for some time, that refereeing at some high impact journals is qualitatively different to what the majority of us receive, and probably deliver; an often form driven exercise with a couple of lines of comments and complaints. This level of quality peer review takes an awful lot of time and it costs money; money that is coming from somewhere. Nonetheless it provides better feedback for authors and no doubt means the end product is better than it would otherwise have been.
The final factor was a blog post from Molecular Philosophy discussing why the author felt Open Access Publishers are, if not doomed to failure, then face a very challenging road ahead. The centre of the argument as I understand it focused around the costs of high impact journals, particularly the costs of selection, refinement, and preparation for print. Broadly speaking I think it is generally accepted that a volume model of OA publication, such as that practiced by PLoS ONE and BMC can be profitable. I think it is also generally accepted that a profitable business model for high impact OA publication has yet to be convincingly demonstrated. The question I would like to ask though is different. The Molecular Philosophy post skips the zeroth order questions. Can we afford high impact publications?
Returning to the RIN funded study and model of scholarly publishing some very interesting points came out [see Daniel Hull’s presentation for most of the data here]. The first of these, which in retrospect is obvious but important, is that the vast majority of the costs of producing a paper are incurred in doing the research it describes (£116G worldwide). The second biggest contributor? Researchers reading the papers (£34G worldwide). Only about 14% of the costs of the total life cycle are actually taken up with costs directly attributable to publication. But that is the 14% we are interested in, so how does it divide up?
The “Scholarly Communication Process” as everything in the middle is termed in the model is divided up into actual publication/distribution costs (£6.4G), access provision costs (providing libraries and internet access, £2.1G) and the costs of researchers looking for articles (£16.4G). Yes, the biggest cost is the time you spend trying to find those papers. Arguably that is a sunk cost in as much as once you’ve decided to do research searching for information is a given, but it does make the point that more efficient searching has the potential to save a lot of money. In any case it is a non-cash cost in terms of journal subscriptions or author charges.
So to find the real costs of publication per se we need to look inside that £6.4. Of the costs of actually publishing the articles the biggest single cost is peer review weighing in at around £1.9G globally, just ahead of fixed “first copy” publication costs of £1.8G. So 29% of the total costs incurred in publication and distribution of scholarly articles arises from the cost of peer review.
There are lots of other interesting points in the reports and models (the UK is a net exporter of peer review, but the UK publishes more articles than would be expected based on its subscription expenditure) but the most interesting aspect of the model is its ability to model changes in the publishing landscape. The first scenario presented is one in which publication moves to being 90% electronic. This actually leads to a fairly modest decrease in costs overall with a total overall saving of a little under £1G (less than 1%). Modeling a move to a 90% author pays model (assuming 90% electronic only) leads to very little change overall, but interestingly that depends significantly on the cost of systems put in place to make author payments. If these are expensive and bureaucratic then the costs can rise as many small payments are more expensive than few big ones. But overall the costs shouldn’t need to change much, meaning if mechanisms can be put in place to move the money around, the business models should ultimately be able to make sense. None of this however helps in figuring out how to manage a transition from one system to another, when for all useful purposes costs are likely to double in the short term as systems are duplicated.
The most interesting scenario, though was the third. What happens as research expands. A 2.5% real increase year on year for ten years was modeled. This may seem profligate in today’s economic situation but with many countries explicitly spending stimulus money on research, or already engaged in large scale increases of structural research funding it may not be far off. This results in 28% more articles, 11% more journals, a 12% increase in subscription costs (assuming of course that only the real cost increases are passed on) and a 25% increase in the costs of peer review (£531M on a base of £1.8G).
I started this post talking about proposal refereeing. The increased cost in refereeing proposals as the volume of science increases would be added on top of that for journals. I think it is safe to say that the increase in cost would be of the same order. The refereeing system is already struggling under the burden. Funding bodies are creating new, and arguably totally unfair, rules to try and reduce the burden, journals are struggling to find referees for paper. Increases in the volume of science, whether they come from increased funding in the western world or from growing, increasingly technology driven, economies could easily increase that burden by 20-30% in the next ten years. I am sceptical that the system, as it currently exists, can cope and I am sceptical that peer review, in its current form is affordable in the medium to long term.
So, bearing in mind Paulo’s admonishment that I need to offer solutions as well as problems, what can we do about this? We need to find a way of doing peer review effectively, but it needs to be more efficient. Equally if there are areas where we can save money we should be doing that. Remember that £16.4G just to find the papers to read? I believe in post-publication peer review because it reduces the costs and time wasted in bringing work to community view and because it makes the filtering and quality assurance of that published work continuous and ongoing. But in the current context it offers significant cost savings. A significant proportion of published papers are never cited. To me it follows from this that there is no point in peer reviewing them. Indeed citation is an act of post-publication peer review in its own right and it has recently been shown that Google PageRank type algorithms do a pretty good job of identifying important papers without any human involvement at all (beyond the act of citation). Of course for PageRank mechanisms to work well the citation and its full context are needed making OA a pre-requisite.
If refereeing can be restricted to those papers that are worth the effort then it should be possible to reduce the burden significantly. But what does this mean for high impact journals? The whole point of high impact journals is that they are hard to get into. This is why both the editorial staff and peer review costs are so high for them. Many people make the case that they are crucial for helping to filter out the important papers (remember that £16.4G again). In turn I would argue that they reduce value by making the process of deciding what is “important” a closed shop, taking that decision away, to a certain extent, from the community where I feel it belongs. But at the end of the day it is a purely economic argument. What is the overall cost of running, supporting through peer review, and paying for, either by subscription or via author charges, a journal at the very top level? What are the benefits gained in terms of filtering and how do they compare to other filtering systems. Do the benefits justify the costs?
If we believe that there are better filtering systems possible, then they need to be built, and the cost benefit analysis done. The opportunity is coming soon to offer different, and more efficient, approaches as the burden becomes too much to handle. We either have to bear the cost or find better solutions.
[This has got far too long already – and I don’t have any simple answers in terms of refereeing grant proposals but will try to put some ideas in another post which is long overdue in response to a promise to Duncan Hull]