Fast-track fees imperil journals’ reputation for fairness

At least seven academic journals now offer preferential treatment for a fee—see the table at bottom. The journals describe this as a “fast-track” service that simply speeds things up. Even if that were all it was, this is an unwelcome development, as it means scientists from poorer countries or with poor funding will fall further behind their rich counterparts, whose publications can now leapfrog over the others. Traditionally this did not happen, and still the vast majority of journals have a policy of treating all (uninvited) submissions equally.

Worse, it is likely that at least occasionally, fast-tracking leads to short-cuts by the editor or reviewers as they seek to meet the deadline. For instance, reviewers are often late submitting their reviews to the editor. At most journals, the editor simply waits. But if dealing with a paid-for fast-track submission, the editor must make their decision without the benefit of the additional criticisms likely to be raised by the late review. Effectively, authors who pay may have a higher chance of their article being accepted then those who don’t.

I worry that if we do not protest these policies, more journals will adopt them and science’s general reputation for fairness will be damaged. If you are concerned about this, consider contributing to and signing the protest letter.

Journal Fee Fast-track Service
Obesity Reviews 1000 USD “guarantees peer-review within 10 working days”
Journal of Internet Medical Research 450 USD “initial decision within 15 working days, publication within 1 month after acceptance”
International Journal of Digital Content Technology and its Applications 2000 USD “to review and publish your paper within 6 ~ 8 weeks”
Eurasian Journal of Analytical Chemistry 250 USD “editorial decision, and author notification on this manuscript is guaranteed to take place within 4 weeks”
Mathematical and Computational Forestry & Natural-Resource Sciences 300 USD “the review, editorial decision, and author notification on this manuscript is guaranteed to take place within 4 weeks”
Review of Finance 800 EUR “guarantees an editorial decision in 14 days”
Review of Corporate Finance 1000 USD “guarantees a two-week turnaround time”, “referees will receive $800 for a fast, high quality referee report”

Thanks to M. Kaan Öztürk for discovering two of these cases, and to Bill Hooker for contributing to the protest letter. I also discovered that the journal-publishing platforms Open Journal Systems and Celesta Publishing System include the option of a fast-track submission fee in the standard version of their software now.

UPDATE 11 June 2011: Obesity Reviews has informed me that they have discontinued fast-tracking for a fee, and the Eurasian Journal of Analytical Chemistry seems to have deleted all mentions of it from their website.

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18 thoughts on “Fast-track fees imperil journals’ reputation for fairness

  1. Gunther Eysenbach

    Grant-funded authors often have to meet certain deadlines for publishing or spending funds, or a publication is required for the next round of grant proposals. The authors with “poor funding” you mention in your blog probably don’t have to worry about this. Most scientists I’ve spoken to see it as a welcome development, to be able to time their publication better and hold journals accountable in this regard, rather than being at the mercy of unpredictable turn-around times. That this requires extra resources (which are so sometimes passed on to reviewers and editors as a financial incentive to meet tight deadlines) is understandable. As a author, editor, and publisher I think this is a welcome development. Anybody jeoulous of authors having better funding, then perhaps starting to sign a protest letter against conferences charging registration fees or flying business class might be a better starting points given the prevalence of these “unfair” practices. And while we are at it, I think we should also protest against better funded authors hiring research assistants helping with the publication of their papers.

  2. Science is of our world, and so at many stages of the process some scientists will have monetary advantages. I wouldn’t have it any other way; to make rapid progress some system is necessary to direct funds towards select researchers.
    However, the judgment of the quality of a particular work of science has traditionally been money-blind. In broader society, everyone agrees we should strive for the ideal of blind justice in the judicial system, and it seems to me that scientific journals have embodied the same ethic. Until now.
    I agree that some journals take an unreasonably long time to render their decisions, and I know that authors in some fields have no alternative to those journals. But I don’t think this is the right solution.
    *Speeded* publication itself does not sound so bad, although I do worry about early-career researchers applying for their first grant who do not have the funds to pay to get their article published before the grand deadline. What really scares me is the likelihood that fast-track submissions will on average receive fewer reviews and less criticism. There may also be other ways favoring the authors that editors will take shortcuts to make the deadline. If this catches on, which I hope it will not, at the least I think journals should indicate which articles received preferential, sponsored treatment and which did not.

    • > “what really scares me is the likelihood that fast-track submissions will on average receive fewer reviews and less criticism”

      Show me the evidence for this.
      I can say with confidence that at least at the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) this is absolutely not the case. We normally assign 4 peer-reviewers to each article, fast-tracked articles get 6 reviewers (as we need to be sure that at least 1-2 are in by the deadline). If not enough high-quality reviews are in by the deadline then the fast-track fee will be refunded to the author. The fast-track fee is often used to pay reviewers, so these reviews tend to be better or of the same quality. And the fast-track fee is for the initial decision only, not for any re-reviews of revised versions.

      I find it quite outrageous to confound the debate on fast-track fees with quality issues. We had similar debates in the context of open access (“if authors pay publishing fees, it cannot be good science, and it undermines peer-review”, etc.). This debate is just another variant of this.
      Go to http://www.jmir.org and tell me from looking at the quality of the articles which ones are fast-tracked. If you can tell the difference, you have a point.

      The equity argument is also questionable, as some other comments show. I can tell you that junior researchers, even graduate students, appreciate the fast-track option very much, as sometimes they need a publication by a specific deadline for their PhD defense etc. The costs for paying a fast-track fee are lower than entering the working life 6 months later. I believe in giving people a choice.

  3. Most researchers have important deadlines, and the often completely unpredictable amount of time journals demand for handling manuscripts (sometimes up to a year) are not seldom a severe threat to efficient planning. I think having the opportunity to fast-track a ms is a very good development and my prediction is that most journal will offer this in a not so distant future. Of course, the basic problem is tha a total effort of about 10-12 days in the if summing up the work from all reviewers and authors in the publication process take such a long time to handle. From a LEAN-perspective, this process (where most of the time is devoted to procrastinating) is nothing less than a nightmare.

  4. It’s actually considered extortion.

    You are forcing authors to resort to the fast-track option by guaranteeing a turnaround time. If a reputable journal offered this option, they’d be investigated.

    A journal is considered a journal subject to ethical codes and practices irrespective of all else.

    To me it seems the fast-track option disadvantages some authors over others. You need to actually get approval from certain bodies with legit reasons as to why a fast-track option is a necessary option.

    This option currently exists in certain public organizations for specific reasons but that same privilege doesn’t extend to print publications.

    It’s against the law to advantage some consumers over others or some authors over others on the grounds of paid for speedy feedback when they’re supposed to receive the same treatment.

    The internet is loose when it comes to these things but it’s still considered malpractice and a matter of time before they get caught.

  5. Formerlobbyist, thanks for your comment. You seem to be usefully applying your knowledge from another domain to this issue with scientific journals. What is that other domain and also can you point me to the ethical codes and laws you refer to?

    • I don’t think any aspect of these policies rise to the level of extortion. I’m dubious of your claims about the law and will remain so until you can provide some references. You also should say what the “certain bodies” are that must grant approval. I’ve never heard of such bodies- unfortunately I’m not aware of any agreed-on policies for proper practices of journals. I think most people (such as yourself) have some strong ideas about what constitutes proper practice, but I haven’t seen them codified, so I don’t think there’s any question of this being “considered malpractice”

  6. […] now money has started to infiltrate the system. Several journals are now accepting money for “fast-track” services. It is hard to see how this policy can be implemented without […]

  7. What they’re offering is not legally sound but they may not be aware the higher you go the more serious the offense gets.

    I would wait for a written response. For the meantime, why not be diplomatic about it and call them. Let them know it’s offensive, plus bribing and extortion can have long term consequences like jail.

    They should respond but if they don’t I’d simply report this as scamming.

    Each state (USA) has a govt organization which deals specifically with scams. Email the one in their state and let them know the nature of the complaint. They usually respond straight away and in this case they may launch an investigation with the police who don’t require a ‘Freedom of Information’ permission slip to investigate work places and confiscate computers.

    ‘…rather than being at the mercy of unpredictable turn-around times. That this requires extra resources (which are so sometimes passed on to reviewers and editors as a financial incentive to meet tight deadlines) is understandable.’

    This is bribing which could be used as evidence.

    ‘…If not enough high-quality reviews are in by the deadline then the fast-track fee will be refunded to the author.’

    They haven’t specified a partial or full refund. This smells like a gimmick in need of investigation.

    ‘The leading eHealth journal’, ‘The leading peer-reviewed journal for health and healthcare in the internet age’

    This is misleading and considered fraudulent if they’re not able to back this claim.

    If you want to go further, report the website to a regulatory body overseeing the peer review process in their jurisdiction, there should be one, or the fair trade or relevant ombudsman. Public attention, public attention, pop an email to reporters.

    I personally wouldn’t because an awareness has been raised. These things take time. The more malpractice, the more evidence, the more penalties. It’s just a matter of time before they get issued a warning or disbanded when investigations take place.

    • I don’t think any aspects of the fast-track policies constitute bribery or extortion or even “malpractice”. It would be better for the discussion if you used more appropriate and less inflammatory terms. There is unfortunately no “regulatory body overseeing the peer review process”. I’d support journals coming together to codify acceptable practices, but because it seems they haven’t, it’s not clear there is anything objectively wrong about the fast-track policies. As I have written, my concern is simply that the involvement of money associated with some manuscripts but not others may bias the editors and reviewers, but we should be clear that although their journals might benefit financially, they would not be personally profiting.

    • Dear anonymous “fl”,
      thanks for your comments. I will not comment on allegations of “bribing”, “extortion”, or “scamming”, or suggestions to alert “regulatory bodies overseeing the peer-review process”, as they clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding of the process of peer-review at journals in general and the fast-track model at JMIR specifically.
      We stand behind our fast-track experiment and have evidence that fast-tracking does not bias editorial decision making or affects the quality of the process (see http://gunther-eysenbach.blogspot.com/2011/07/jmirs-fast-track-experiment-innovations.html).

      In response to some of your other comments:

      “The leading eHealth journal’, ‘The leading peer-reviewed journal for health and healthcare in the internet age’ – This is misleading and considered fraudulent if they’re not able to back this claim.”
      REPLY: We can easily back this claim. Our journal (JMIR) is ranked #1 in the category “Medical Informatics” by Impact Factor in the Journal Citation Reports published by Thomson Reuters. See http://www.jmir.org/announcement/view/44 for details

      “‘…If not enough high-quality reviews are in by the deadline then the fast-track fee will be refunded to the author – They haven’t specified a partial or full refund. This smells like a gimmick in need of investigation.”
      REPLY: Obviously there would be a full refund of the FT fee. This only happened once so far (we received 156 FT submissions as of today, in all cases were we able to make a timely decision).

      G. Eysenbach
      Editor & Publisher, J Med Internet Res

  8. Perhaps one of the most useful protests one could make against a system like this is to refuse to review for journals which have a fast-track system.

    Considering that fast-tracking involved little extra effort for the journal (it is primarily about the reviewers submitting their responses sooner) it seems outrageous to charge for such a system.

  9. Hi Jonathan, thanks, our protest letter (http://bit.ly/dMc4RI) says among other things that we (the signatories) will not review for these journals. @FL: about reporting it to a “regulatory body overseeing the peer review process”, unfortunately there is no such thing! and I think trade councils and such wouldn’t say they have any jurisdiction either. Journal practices seem to be based almost entirely on tradition and unwritten norms. Lodging these protest letters is one way of beginning to establish norms explicitly.

  10. […] sistemi herkese eşit davranır. Genellikle. Avustralyalı psikolog Alex Holcombe bu kuralı çiğneyen bazı dergiler keşfetti. Bu dergiler (ve daha kimbilir kaç tanesi) makale gönderen yazarlara, ek ücret karşılığında […]

  11. […] sistemi herkese eşit davranır. Genellikle. Avustralyalı psikolog Alex Holcombe bu kuralı çiğneyen bazı dergiler keşfetti. Bu dergiler (ve daha kimbilir kaç tanesi) makale gönderen yazarlara, ek ücret karşılığında […]

  12. […] plant sciences, are offering to accelerate the review process by charging authors an extra fee. Alex Holcombe suggests on his blog that this will mean researchers with poor funding will fall further behind their rich counterparts, […]

  13. […] Eysenbach, editor of  the Journal of Internet Medical Research, to his credit had already given a robust defense in which he assured me that no shortcuts were taken with fast-tracked manuscripts. In his […]

  14. […] Additional fees for upgrades are nothing new in the world of journals. One could easily view color charges or hybrid OA options as freemium offerings. Charging fees for a fast track review process may be seen as a step too far though, as it occurs before the accept/reject decision is made and thus enters into a realm viewed as sacrosanct. To be fair to NPG, fast track review for a fee is not something they invented and has been part of the publishing landscape for some time (a complaint about favoring rich authors dating to 2011 can be found here). […]

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