Here’s CRAP: a new policy regarding review requests I’ve decided to try out. CRAP means Conditional Review Acceptance Policy, the new default response to review requests. I will perform review only if the journal agrees to publish the article in a Free Open Access mode – making the article publicly available, without charging any fees for it from universities, authors, or readers.
Here’s the story behind CRAP. If you’re an academic, you will recognize the pattern: you get an ‘invitation’ or a ‘request’ to review a paper submitted to the journal because ‘you have been identified as an expert on the topic’. If you’re serious about the job, you easily spend half a day reading the article, thinking about the innovations in the research questions, the consistency of the hypotheses, wondering why previous research was ignored, vetting the reliability and the validity of the data and methods used, checking the tables, leaving aside the errors in references which the author copied from a previously published article. As a reviewer accepting the task to review a paper you sometimes get a 25% discount on the hugely overpriced books by the publisher or access to journal articles which your university library already paid for.
You accept the invitation because you know the editor personally, you want to help improve science, want to facilitate progress in the field, because by refusing you will miss an opportunity to influence the direction your field is taking or simply to block rubbish from being published. *Or, if you have less laudable objectives, because you want others to know and cite your work. I confess I have fallen prey to this temptation myself.* But it does not end after the job is done. There’s a good chance you will get the article back after the authors revised it, and you are invited again to check whether the authors have done a good job incorporating your comments. In the mean time, you’ve received seven more review requests. I could fill my entire week reviewing papers if I accepted all invitations I receive.
In the world outside academia complying with a request means doing people a favor, which at some point in the future you can count on to be returned. Not so in academia. The favors that we academics are doing are used by publishers to make profit, by selling the journals we work for as unpaid volunteers to university libraries. The journal prices that publishers are ridiculously high but libraries have no choice but to accept them because they cannnot afford to miss the journal in its collection. And ultimately we keep up the system by continuing to accept review requests. Academic publishers exploit scholars asking for reviews and giving nothing in return.
If you’re not an academic you may find this all very strange. When I told my parents in 2003 that my first article was accepted for an international journal they asked: “How much did they pay you for the article?” Journalists and free lance writers for magazines may get paid for the content they are producing, but not academics. The content we hope to help produce as reviewers is a public good: valid and reliable knowledge. Falsity should be avoided at all cost; the truth, the truth, and nothing but the truth should be published. The production of this public good is facilitated by public money. But the reviews we provide are not public goods. They are private goods. They are typically anonymous, and not shared publicly. We send them to the editorial assistant, who sends them to the authors (and sometimes, ‘as a courtesy’, to the other volunteer reviewers). The final product is again a private good, sold by the publisher. Collectively, our favors are creating a public bad: increasing costs for journal subscriptions.
What can we do about this? Should the volunteer work we do be monetized? Should we go on strike to ask for an adequate wage? According to the profitability of the journal perhaps? So that the higher the profit the publisher makes on a journal, the higher the compensation for reviewers? This would do nothing to reduce the public bad. Instead, I think we should move into Free Open Access publishing. The public nature of knowledge, the production of which is made possible by public funding, should be accessible for the public. It is fair that some compensation is given to the journal’s publisher for the costs they will have to incur to copy-edit the article and to host the electronic manuscript submission system. These costs are relatively low. I am leaving the number crunching for some other time or some other geek, but my hunch is that if we would monetize our volunteer work as reviewers this would be enough to pay for the publication of one article.
Academic publishers are not stupid. They see the push towards open access coming, and are now actively offering open access publication in their journals. But everything comes at a price. So they are charging authors (i.e., authors’ funders) fees for open access publication, ranging from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Obviously, this business model is quite profitable – otherwise commercial publishers would not adopt it. Thugs and thieves are abusing the fee-based open access model by creating worthless journals that will publish any article, cashing the fees and to make a profit. The more respectable publishers are now negotiating with universities and public funders of science about a better model, circumventing the authors. Undoubtedly the starting point for such a model is that the academic publication industry remains profitable. In all of this, the volunteer work of reviewers is still the backbone of high quality journal publications. And it is still not compensated.
So my plea to fellow academics is simple. We should give CRAP as our new default response. Agree to review if the publisher agrees to publish the article in Free Open Access. It may be the only way to force Free Open Access into existence. I will keep you updated on the score.
Update: 14 October 2014
Response: 4 Declined (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sociology of Religion, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Science and Public Policy; Qualitative Sociology); 1 offered Green Access (Public Management Review); 2 responded review was no longer needed (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Body & Society).
One managing editor wrote: “Thank you for offering to review this manuscript. Unfortunately, our publisher has not yet approved free Open Source. Those of us who actually work for the journal instead of the publishing institution would gladly provide open access to articles if it was up to us. These kinds of decisions are not left up to our discretion however. I greatly respect your stance and hope it is one that will eventually lead to greater access to academic publications in the future.”
In a message titled “Your assignment”, the associate editor of JPSP wrote: “I appreciate your willingness to review manuscript #[omitted] for Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences. As it turns out, your review will not be needed for me to make a decision, so please do not complete your review. ”
The message from the editor of Sociology of Religion, probably composed by an Oxford University Press employee, says: “Sociology of Religion does not have an author-pays Open Access option in place, which would require the author or the body that funded the research to pay an Author Processing Charge—there is a range of APCs, beginning at $1,800. This is the only system currently in place at Oxford University Press for optional Open Access (some journals, of course, are entirely Open Access by design, generally with significant society sponsorship). The request and APC would need to come from the author, not the manuscript reviewer. Moreover, if an author requires OA to comply with requirements from his or her funding body, then the author submits it to a journal that has a OA option. Also, all authors of published articles are given a toll-free URL to post wherever they like—this allows the final version to be read without payment by anyone using that link, and importantly, counts toward online usage statistics. While this isn’t exactly the same as OA, it does make it freely available through that link as it is posted or distributed by the author.”
This is an interesting response from OUP. The question aside why the ‘Author Processing Charge’ must be as high as $1,800, if three reviewers each charge $600 for the volunteer work they provide for the journal by reviewing the paper, the APC would be compensated. As a courtesy to reviewers, OUP could waive the APC. Reviewers could wave the review fee as a courtesy to OUP. With wallets closed everybody benefits.
The editor of Science and Public Policy, another OUP journal, responded: “unfortunately at present an unconditional policy for open access publishing is not in place for our journal, rather the following policy applies, which is not in line with your conditions, according to which Authors may upload their accepted manuscript PDF to an institutional and/or centrally organized repository, provided that public availability is delayed until 24 months after first online publication in the journal.”
The editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion wrote in what seems to be a standard reply: “It has become apparent that I will not need you to review the manuscript at this time. I hope you will be able to review other manuscripts for JSSR in the near future.”
In contrast, the editorial assistant for Body & Society wrote: “We’re just writing to let you know that we no longer require you to review this paper. Enough reviews have come in for the editorial board to be able to make a decision. Thank you for having agreed to review, and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
*HT to @dwcorne for identifying this less benign motivation.