Third-party review platforms

by Thomas Arildsen

I recently read this piece (http://chrissampson.me/2013/09/18/one-suggestion-for-a-new-model-of-academic-publishing/) by Chris Sampson. It is an interesting proposal and I thank Chris Sampson for writing it since it encouraged me to think so much about this possibility. I am mostly interested in the review aspect of it. Delegating the handling of peer review to third parties could for example be a good idea in terms of making the whole review process faster and more efficient – for example for the reasons argued by the team behind Libre: http://www.openscholar.org.uk/why-and-how-to-separate-scholarly-evaluation-from-academic-journals/.

I would like to weigh in with my thoughts on third-party peer review.

Funding

One important issue is that of funding such third-party “review companies”. What kind of companies are these and how do they make the money to fund their activities.

I suppose they could be non-profit organisations but could also be for-profit commercial companies. I find the former the most appealing. I guess there is nothing wrong in principle with companies making money from what they do if they do it well and provide a useful service to the scientific community, but somehow I think that such third-party review companies should exist for the sole purpose of providing competent, thorough, trust-worthy review of scientific papers and that a focus on profit might divert their attention from this goal. For example, unreasonably high profit margins are one of the reasons that large publishers such as Elsevier are currently being criticised.

However, some income is needed to run such a platform and where is that going to come from? I see several options:

  • Authors pay: this is probably not popular. It is my impression that traditional publishers are often criticised for their rather high publishing fees for (gold) open access publishing in their journals. An author fee for review could be seen as comparable to this, but I think its perception depends on how the review company is run. If it is a commercial company, an author fee might well be considered as unpopular as the mentioned OA publishing fees. If, on the other hand, the company is a non-profit able to argue that the fee simply covers the necessary (low) expenses to conduct the review process, it might be perceived as fair. Well, I am no game-theorist, sociologist, psychologist or anything relevant, so this is just my personal opinion.
  • Review company is paid by research funders: this could be a better option. In the above case of placing the fee on the authors, much of the funding for this will probably come from the researchers’ projects which are often funded by research councils etc. anyway – such as the public The Danish Council for Independent Research or The Danish Council for Strategic Research here in Denmark. It might be an idea for such research funders to simply fund the review companies directly instead, not placing the burden on individual researchers. In my opinion, this would only work fairly if the review company is a non-profit organisation. Otherwise, they would receive the same criticism for sponging off public research funding that many commercial publishers are currently subject to.
  • Review company is paid by publishers: this could be problematic. If a review company is paid for the review work by the publisher that eventually ends up publishing a particular article, the review company would be under suspicion for not being impartial. Maybe this could be less of a problem if publishers were to form a coalition that would collectively pay for all of the review being carried out. Anyway, this cost incurred on the publishers would just be carried over to publishing fees which would then be the authors’ problem.
    By the way, could impartiality also be an issue if authors pay for reviews?
  • Review company is funded by advertising on its website: I guess one could imagine this scenario although I think it is unlikely. In my opinion, this would be distasteful at best.

Chris Sampson’s post also mentions that journals would bid on papers to publish, based on the reviews. I assume he means that journals would bid as in competing for who could publish at lowest cost? Since he also suggests that all papers should be published open access, the publishers cannot charge the readers for publishing, so I assume this cost must be charged from the authors. Therefore, the competitive element must lie in which journal is able to publish at lowest cost? If the author is to pay the fee, I suppose the author also gets to choose the journal. The author might not necessarily want to select the cheapest journal; maybe a slightly higher-cost bidding journal has a better reputation and the author prefers that one.

The last part leads me to another thought: the reviews should be openly accessible as well (an issue I have discussed before on this blog). This way, there is more information available to readers for judging papers by their actual merits rather than by the journal that publishes them. Maybe this would take some of the popularity contest element out of publishing and help make publishing fees more realistic?

Publishers’ interest

I am afraid a change to the proposed model would be lobbied hard against by exisiting publishers – for at least two reasons:

  1. Review would no longer be part of the publishers’ services and so, they would have less to claim that authors need to pay for, making it more difficult for them to keep up their high profit margins.
  2. Open reviews and thereby better assessment of papers based on content rather than publication venue could work towards more equal status of publishers. This is of course something the highest-ranking journals would want to work against too.

Possible “review companies”

As I have mentioned in previous posts, several platforms have appeared recently that could take on this role of third-party reviewer. I could imagine at least: libreapp.org, peerevaluation.org, pubpeer.com, and publons.com. Pandelis Perakakis mentioned several others as well: https://thomas.arildsen.org/2013/08/01/open-review-of-scientific-literature/comment-page-1/#comment-9.

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