Opening access with peer reviewing pledges

Most academics agree that most scientific articles should be freely available, but we’re stuck in a system where scientific articles still tend to be submitted to journals that one needs a subscription to read.

One way we researchers perpetuate this system is by donating our labor to provide “peer review” of manuscripts that will require others to pay hefty subscription fees to read.

Over the years, some researchers have pledged to no longer do this. It’s been only a trickle, and I thought getting more visibility for open access pledgers would help the cause. I made a web page listing those I could find and also created a site people could pledge with, but getting the pledge right is tough.

Some think we should refuse to do any reviews for journals that are not open access- journals whose articles are behind paywalls rather than free for anyone to download. Mike Taylor wrote an angry article advocating this, and several commenters agreed with him, such as Peter Murray-Rust, who frequently blogs about the issue. In the area of computer security conference proceedings and journals, there’s been enormous success with a strong pledge, thanks to an independently- and concurrently-created excellent pledge registration website by Stuart Schechter. Although it’s evident that in the computer security conference and journal domain, the field may be ready and has the infrastructure to transition almost immediately to full open access, I don’t think that’s true in most of the traditional sciences.

Unwillingness to sign on to a categorical pledge of no reviewing for closed journals is something I’ve heard from many colleagues, including several long-time open science advocates that I’ve been communicating with about the issues over the last few months. I’ve come to share two of their objections:

The hypocrite objection It looks hypocritical to refuse to review for closed journals unless one also stops submitting manuscripts to closed journals. Where one submits to is more constrained, by one’s co-authors and one’s career prospects, so it’s harder to stop submitting. Although I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with donating one’s reviewing time only to open access journals, I do know it looks hypocritical (I have been called a hypocrite for this reason), which hurts the cause. This also can lead to the perception that pledgers are finding a convenient way to shirk the extra work of reviewing. Maybe these arguments can be won with individual name-callers, but it takes a lot of time to win those fights.

The green road objection Most journals, including closed access journals, allow researchers to put their post-print (their final version of the manuscript, before the publisher type-sets it) up on the web in their university’s or institution’s digital repository. In other words, the only thing stopping all these articles from being freely available is the authors themselves. If everybody posted their articles in their institution’s repository, then the articles would all be free, publishers couldn’t charge exorbitant subscription fees (although they might still have a role) and we wouldn’t have to win any fights or topple any publishers. This is called the green road (as explained here by Stevan Harnad), as opposed to the gold road of paying open-access journals to publish our articles. If you believe this is the best way to achieve open access, then you may be more concerned with supporting this then to starving the closed journals.

A couple other, more straightforward objections I heard were that some people want to continue reviewing the best articles in their field (or not give up that opportunity if they are junior and aren’t asked often) and others are in fields that don’t have a good open-access outlet, meaning they would end up not reviewing any articles.

The feedback I got (thanks especially to Fabiana Kubke and Rochelle Tractenberg) was that the hypocrite and green road pledging problems could be solved by adding some clauses to the pledge. The pledge I’ve arrived at is this:

I pledge to devote most of my reviewing and editing efforts to manuscripts destined for open access. For other manuscripts, I will restrict myself to one review by me for each review obtained for me by an outlet that is not open access.

The hypocrite problem is solved by the second sentence- one agrees to return the favor for each review of one’s own work that one gets from a closed outlet.

The green road problem is solved by the phrasing “destined for open access”. I defined “destined for open access” as “those that the authors or journal post on institutional or university web repositories, or those that are made open access by the publisher within 12 months.”  (the reason that personal webpages aren’t mentioned is that those are notoriously transient and not always indexed appropriately by scholarly search engines) The tricky bit is that one usually doesn’t know whether the authors will be putting their post-print in a repository, in which case my plan is to put the onus on the journal editor, telling them I can’t review the manuscript unless the authors have promised to put it in a repository. If the authors are funded by the NIH or the Wellcome Trust or are at certain universities with strong open access mandates, it’s reasonable to assume the manuscripts will be posted (although that doesn’t always happen).

I set up openaccesspledge.com, but didn’t try to promote it much, as I thought (as suggested by Mike Taylor) we might instead do some sort of multiple-choice pledge, but that would require some php programming that’s beyond me (any volunteers?), and I’m not sure it’s the best course. In the meantime we’ve collected more than 14 signatures- if you want to take the pledge, please sign.

What do people think of this?  Should we peer-review only for gold open access journals, or also for manuscripts headed for repositories?

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2 thoughts on “Opening access with peer reviewing pledges

  1. My feeling is that efforts like the peer-review pledge are like attempts to effect political and economic change by being a better consumer. It’s not really an effective substitute for institutional change. I don’t think that the closed-source journals are going to go away as a result of a reviewing/submitting boycott. I think they will go away when granting agencies improve the funding model for open-access journals, and more OA journals become available/develop strong reputations.

  2. Agreed. I think the most effective reforms are probably open access mandates by universities and funders. Note that you refer only to OA journals, but if everybody exercised the right given them by most journals to deposit their manuscripts in institutional repositories, then it wouldn’t matter if the journal itself still wasn’t OA (the “green road” to OA and the requirement of most institutional mandates).

    The reviewing pledge is only a small part of the picture. Although the effect of any individual shifting reviewing efforts towards manuscripts that will be open is small, it’s an easy one because it’s work one is doing for free anyway.

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