September 24, 2017

Tiptoeing Toward the Tipping Point | Peer to Peer Review

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has done academic librarians a huge favor. When it publicly got behind the Research Works Act, it accomplished something librarians have been trying to do for decades. It turned a lot of scholars into open access activists.

Until now, the majority of the academics we work with found the phrase “scholarly communication” a little bogus. It’s not an expression scholars use themselves. It’s a slogan that marks the speaker as a librarian, concerned about library stuff and trying to drag busy researchers into their parochial problems. Those who are sympathetic to libraries tended to believe it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by increasing the library’s budget. Those who couldn’t be bothered had more important things to do. Of course, it’s not just librarians doing the work; there have been strong open access advocates in the disciplines for years, but they haven’t been able to make much headway against tradition, either.

But we have suddenly taken a nice hop, if not a great leap, forward. Whoever wrote the AAP statement supporting the bill deserves a few valentines from us, because it managed to push buttons we had so far been unable to reach.

Perhaps scholars were jarred by the association’s indignation about the “unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles.” Hold on a minute. Isn’t that what journal articles are for, to disseminate ideas? How can it be unauthorized if the granting agency expects it? And what’s wrong with free? It’s not like researchers actually pay for the articles they use.

But it’s the rest of that sentence that is real genius. The AAP lays claim to “producing” the research they publish.

Whoa, stand back. Things could get a little ugly.

Whose research is it, anyway?
One response is a website created by programmer and mathematician Tyler Neylon, in response to a blog post by another prominent mathematician who has had it with Elsevier. As I write this, 3,025 researchers have signed a pledge to neither write nor review articles for journals published by Elsevier. (That’s up from 2,852 when I started to write this piece.) Why Elsevier? It’s not the only abusive for-profit publisher, but it got its reputation the old fashioned way: it earned it. Besides, it has consistently pushed for legislation that will protect its high profit margins. When one of the congressional representatives who sponsored the bill, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), responded to a critic, her letter had passages that seemed to be lifted straight from comments made elsewhere by an Elsevier spokesman. Very cozy.

The letter also raised a scaremongering, though extraordinarily silly, objection that has been raised in the past as publishers argue against federal research mandates: a xenophobic fear of foreigners. “Two-thirds of the access to PubMed central is from non-US users,” Maloney wrote. “In effect, current law is giving our overseas scientific competitors in China and elsewhere important information for free.” Apart from seeming to claim that the NIH is leaking state secrets that would not otherwise fall into the hands of foreigners, she seems to have forgotten that many of the companies that would benefit from this bill and have lobbied hard for it are based overseas, too, and benefit hugely from the free basic research our tax dollars support.

Oh, that’s what the fine print really means
The question of who legally owns the copyright to research articles has been sublimely unimportant to most scholars. Who cares, so long as the article gets published? It’s just a formality, right? They didn’t care so long as the transfer of copyright was just a little paperwork. But when publishers begin to make noises that they actually produce the research themselves, and that the handling they do makes the articles theirs in a way that goes well beyond red tape, scholars get hot under the collar.

Supporters of the act tell the authors of these journals that they are free to do what they like with their research—lab notebooks and data sets. That’s acceptable, and researchers should be content with that. But once the article the researcher wrote is submitted to a journal, the journal’s back office work transforms it into unique and valuable intellectual property that thereafter belongs to private sector interests, the act’s supporters claim. The authors have no claim to those articles at all.

Librarians have been pointing this out for years, without having much impact. But we never put it quite so bluntly: publishers not only own the publication rights to your work, they totally own that research. Scholars would scoff if a librarian made that claim, but when the publisher comes right out and says it—that’s a good way to get a researcher hopping mad.

Or you could just try to explain to a scientist what “peer review” means, as the congresswoman patronizingly does in her letter. That works, too.

Getting there
A boycott announcement signed by a few thousand researchers won’t change the status quo. (Oh, look at that, it’s up to 3,118 now.) Changing cultures is a slow process, and the rituals of submitting research to the right journals is deeply embedded in the disciplines. Alternatives are available, but not as well established. Scholars frequently don’t realize that journals they respect are owned by Elsevier or SAGE or another publisher with high profit margins. They may not realize that their scholarly society has outsourced their publishing operations to a multinational corporation that has every reason to restrict access to the society’s body of knowledge. But it’s time they figured it out.

They’re smart people. They’ll get there eventually, particularly if they use the kind of simple, unemotional logic that Fields medalist Timothy Gowers used in his post about boycotting Elsevier:

I don’t think it is helpful to accuse Elsevier of immoral behaviour: they are a big business and they want to maximize their profits, as businesses do. I see the argument as a straightforward practical one. Yes, they are like that, as one would expect, but we have much greater bargaining power than we are wielding at the moment, for the very simple reason that we don’t actually need their services. That is not to say that morality doesn’t come into it, but the moral issues are between mathematicians and other mathematicians rather than between mathematicians and Elsevier. In brief, if you publish in Elsevier journals you are making it easier for Elsevier to take action that harms academic institutions, so you shouldn’t.

Simple as that.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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  1. Publishers are completely free to decide that they do not want to publish articles covered by NIH’s mandate that they be available in pubmed after six months. But the research is valuable enough that they want to publish it. And having it free and exclusive for six months is not enough for them. Instead they want a law mandating that they will get it free and exclusive for the duration of copyright. This is similar to the WIPO broadcast treaty in that it attempts to ensure that distributers have copyright or copyright-like rights that are granted to creators of intellectual property.

  2. Sandy Thatcher says:

    What is appalling about the opposition to the Research Works Act (and to SOPA/PIPA, for that matter) is that intelligent people like Barbara Fister and Tim Gowers are content to simplify complex issues so much that they become mere slogans, or mantras, sold to the masses of scholars and the general public who can’t be bothered to spend the time to investigate the issues themselves, but like lemmings follow the leaders calling on them to act. If you want to read a truly sophisticated discussion of the RWA, see the debate on The Scholarly Kitchen, for example, not a column like this. It should perhaps foster some deeper thinking that strong advocates of open access like Stevan Harnad and myself do not think the NIH policy is the best solution to the problem of making taxpayer-funded research available to the public, or that trying to boycott Elsevier is a sensible way to approach the problem either. On piracy, we hear impassioned creis of protest against the excesses of SOPA/PIPA, but no protest against MegaUpload or any suggestions about alternatives to dealing with a real problem that is not just an issue for Hollywood and the RIAA but also for university presses. One would hope for a more sophisticated discussion of these issues than the sloganeering that we are getting now.—Sandy Thatcher (retired university press director)

  3. Joe Kraus says:

    To Sandy,

    The Scholarly Kitchen is not exactly a bastion of unbiased blog posts. They are supported by the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and most of the authors of SK seem to be dead set against Open Access resources. I would recommend that you take a look at this blog post by Cameron Neylon, He noted: “But it is of course the funder perspective that we haven’t yet discussed and looking forward, in my view it is the action of funders that will render both the publisher and researcher perspective incomprehensible in ten years time.” In other words, the funders will create a publication system, it will not lie with many of the commercial publishers.

    • Sandy Thatcher says:

      Thanks for the reference, Joe. Maybe the funders will take over the business of publishing the research they fund, but what is mostly happening now is that they are mandating publication in OA journals and providing the fees required by commercial publishers who have Gold OA journal programs. I very much doubt whether government agencies will become full-blown publishers; in the current political climate, that seems a nonstarter. What government agencies could do, however, is post on a public website every final report of research it reports. My argument is that this should suffice for most purposes the general public has an interest in, and unlike the NIH policy, it would make the reports immediately available in their final form, not in a less than final form after a 12-month delay. Peer review adds value, but I would argue that value is directed more toward fulfilling goals of the academy than it is serving the public interest. As for The Scholarly Kitchen, its debate on the RWA is by no means one-sided and includes comments from people like Michael Taylor. Check it out.

  4. Barbara Fister says:

    Thanks for weighing in, Sandy, but I really cannot see how anyone can make a good case for the RWA, and many of the arguments made in its support are frankly ludicrous. “There is no problem.” Oh, really? I have a problem getting the students and faculty at my institution information they need every single day, and our students have a problem paying tuition that supports all the money we spend on bundled rented stuff. “Just put the raw research up, that’s good enough for ordinary folks.” Then what exactly is the purpose of publishing? Either it’s worthwhile, and the data are not good enough, or it’s a great deal of money going to something that’s not all that necessary. (I don’t believe the latter, but then I think saying “give people data” is just a way of trying to make the problem go away.) In framing this issue as big government taking away the publishing industry’s intellectual property, it’s pretty hard to look at the facts and say – hey, why do we so passively let big publishers take publicly funded work and privatize it?

    Sometimes we see eye to eye, Sandy. Not this time.

  5. Sandy Thatcher says:

    Who is talking about “raw research,” Barbara? Final research reports are as detailed and thorough as any journal article. They convey all the important information that a journal article does. But a journal article is written for a different purpose and a different audience than the general public. One function of peer review is to assess the contribution of the research to the academic literature; that is something irrelevant to the utility of the research for the general public. Publishers are NOT proposing to deprive the public of the benefits of research that taxpayer dollars support. To the contrary, publishers fully favor making this research freely available in the form of final research reports. All that they resist is the government’s taking advantage of value added by the publishers and by the reviewers who do the peer review, who are not paid by the government either.

  6. Actually, the bill asks that the people be forbidden from requiring this as a condition of the grant. Researchers don’t have to publish in journals that won’t allow this practice, and publishers don’t have to publish work that comes with this condition.

    It’s striking to me that publishers don’t want to have anyone take advantage of them, when they have routinely taken advantage of the producers of the articles and the institutions that support them.

    The peer review argument (it’s a value added by the publishers who support the RWA, and a value that is threatened by the NIH’s current practice) is largely bogus. There’s no reason peer review is a process that only private sector corporations can support. There are other ways to do this that don’t require legal protection for publishers’ current profits.

    I’m also rather surprised by the argument that the only people who need peer review are specialists. Either it’s a valuable refining fire that helps make our knowledge base stronger, or it’s an incredibly expensive way to provide impact factors and filter results for a niche community that probably already knew about the research before it was published. I think this is an argument that actually diminishes the value of peer review.

  7. Sandy Thatcher says:

    To get a better sense of what functions peer review serves, and why it is an artifact of academe, not something that is necessary for the world at large, Barbara, I urge you to read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy” (NYU Press, 2011). She sensibly proposes there a reform of peer review away from “expert” pre-publication review to crowdsourced post-publication review, and that kind of review process would serve the general public better anyway. What confidence can the public have in anonymous reviews by a couple of experts whose criteria for assessing a scholarly article may not match up well at all with what the public is interested in? A policy that mandated IMMEDIATE posting of research reports that could be crowd reviewed non-anonymously would be much better for the public at large, in my opinion. Peer review, as we know it now, narrowly serves the credentialing needs of academe and is not intended to meet the needs of the taxpaying public.

  8. Barbara Fister says:

    I’ve read and commented on that book when it was in MediaCommons draft mode. I think being open about drafts is fine. What I think is absurd is the big profitable companies in the journal publishing business (including some scholarly societies) want to say a) the way we handle scholarship adds so much value that our handling confers ownership morally as well as legally and agencies that fund research must be forbidden from requiring public access to published reports of research they funded after a year because the government has no right to this incredibly valuable stuff and b) put your stuff online and get it crowd sourced. That’ll work! These claims to me are contradictory. If the chief reason my library invests most of its budget in order to credential the scholars represented in the journals then I’d say it’s time for a less ridiculously wasteful credentialing system. And having served on our P&T committee, spending hours and hours conscientiously evaluating the work of colleagues, I would say there are other means readily available.

    If the review handled by Elsevier and others is only valuable for academic credentialing, it has very little value indeed. By the way, having also reviewed papers – like Fitzpatrick’s work but also for journals like C&RL – if I thought I was doing the work of the author’s P&T committee, not trying to contribute to the field, I would feel like a complete chump. In fact, I hope I have made useful contributions to the work itself and to my field.

  9. Sandy Thatcher says:

    You keep referring. Barbara, to “public access to published reports of research” as though publishers opposed this; they do not. In fact, both the AAP and the AAUP (in its recently released statement) favor the America COMPETES Act, which calls on agencies to develop plans for releasing in timely fashion to the public the final reports on research they fund.

    As for your contributing as a peer reviewer, the public never sees your comments; only the publisher and author does, under the traditional peer-review system. Crowd reviewing, by contrast, fosters transparency, as happened with the Media Commons version of Fitzpatrick’s book on which you commented.