Protest of fast-tracking fees. Two journals respond, and one bows out.

One of the things I love about science is that money can’t buy you admission into a journal. You simply got to do respectable science, as judged by other scientists. Getting accepted by a journal isn’t like getting accepted into a country club or a business deal. Although every system has its biases and science is no exception, at least there’s no actual money being handed over to grease the wheels.

That’s what I used to think, but then I discovered that at least 7 journals have begun offering fast-tracking for a fee. It’s hard to see how that could be done without sometimes giving the monied authors an advantage over those who don’t pay. For example, fast-tracking seems likely to leads to shortcuts by the editor or reviewers as they seek to meet the fast-tracking deadline.

Eighteen of my scientific colleagues around the world and I were concerned enough to sign a protest letter that I sent to the seven journals and many on their editorial boards. Five others have signed on since. At the time of our letter, I don’t believe that any of the journals had an explanation on their website of how integrity of the process would be maintained.

The response? About 6 weeks later, I’ve received responses from only two of the seven journals. Professor Gunther 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 apparently more official response to our letter, he indicated that he would survey his authors and readers on their opinion of fast-tracking for a fee (I’m looking forward to seeing the results). Although I’d like to take his word for it that the money won’t lead the journal to favor those who pay, I believe that even those editors with the best of intentions and integrity will find it difficult to avoid being influenced by those who make a direct contribution to the bottom line. I might be cynical here; or maybe I’m just a good psychologist…

Professor Chris Cieszewski, editor of the Journal of Mathematical and Computational Forestry & Natural-Resource Science, seemed to think little of our letter and our motives, but to his credit he nevertheless added to the journal’s website a detailed description of the policy and some explanation of the reasoning behind the fee. The policy is slightly complicated and I should reserve discussion of the details for another post, but an important aspect is that those who cannot pay will receive a fee waiver. None of the other journals appear to do this, and it’s a reassuring feature (fee waivers are also given at some journals that request a fee for every manuscript published, such as PLoS ONE, about which I’ll say more in another post).

What about the other 5 journals? One of them, the Eurasian Journal of Analytical Chemistry, appears to have quietly deleted from their website all references to a fast-track option. Maybe we can take credit for that. As for the remaining journals who haven’t replied, they really owe authors and readers a full explanation of how their policy will maintain the integrity of the manuscript evaluation process. In my opinion, it’s difficult or impossible to do so, so they ought to forget about fast-tracking for a fee, but failing that they need to lay out a transparent process.

A few things they all ought to address are:

  • What happens if the fast-tracking period elapses and a reviewer hasn’t gotten their review in yet? Will the decision about the manuscript be made without that review?
  • How is the additional money used? Does any go to reviewers?
  • Does the action editor know when a particular manuscript is being fast-tracked? Do the reviewers? To avoid monetary influence, both should be blind to this, but that seems impossible if these things are to be expedited.
  • Will articles which benefited from fast-tracking be indicated in a note associated with those articles? Without such a policy, all articles in the journal may be sullied, at least in the minds of cynics.
  • Are the fees worth risking the appearance of favoritism for money and the consequent likely loss of public trust in science? (ok, so this one’s at the level of “when will you stop beating your wife?” but I couldn’t resist)
It would be nice to keep this whole affair fairly quiet, so as to fully preserve whatever public trust of science there is, but with no response to our letter or my repetitive blog posts from some of the journals, we may need to get some media attention to pressure the journals to address these issues.

9 thoughts on “Protest of fast-tracking fees. Two journals respond, and one bows out.

  1. Bad apples eventually get pruned. Not worth the media attention. However, these correspondences should be forwarded to their institutions – Activities / conduct in conflict with the academia.

    Chris J. Cieszewski
    Unintelligible. Get a professional translator. A legal policy while at it.

    Gunther Eysenbach
    Extend that survey to patients undergoing medical treatment, research donors and grant suppliers, see what they think. Glossing over greed with syrupy intentions is corrupt.

    • Dear M. Sachs, I don’t see any issue of greed here, as the editors won’t be profiting personally from the fast-track fees. I also object to your condescending tone (“get a professional translator”). I don’t want to censor your comment ad hoc, however, so I am working to develop a comment policy that makes it clear one should not use this tone, so that we can have a productive discussion.

      • We should respond with fierce objection to bad science. I will no sooner allow science to regress society into another Dark Age than I would allow “the church” to do so.

        I will oppose not only bad science but bad scientists whose mission is perfectly clear: make a name for themselves at any cost including rationality.

        No. I will not play nice with those who bastardize facts, promote fantasy or spin tales in their own selfish interests.

        Fast-tracking will give junk science a platform and allow it to flourish. Rational people should protest and SCORN those who would act in such deceptive, self-serving ways.

        I don’t claim to be a scientist or have answers, but I do encourage people to think. http://schizotypalgrasp.blogspot.com/

  2. JMIR is a small innovative journal and like many other things we do fast-tracking manuscripts is an experiment to explore new models of peer-review and new business models (we do other experiments, including our open review experiment). JMIR is has an 2010 impact factor of 4.7 (5-year impact factor: 5.0) and is ranked the leading journal by Thomson Reuters ‘ (ISI) Journal Citation Reports in the medical informatics (#1) and the health services & health sciences (#2) categories. Do you really think we would have achieved a leadership position in our fields while we engage in “corruption”, “bribery” and “extortion”? I am frankly shocked by the unfounded accusations and language used (not by you, but some of the commenters) on your repetitive blog posts.
    Almost 25% of our submissions are fast-tracked by authors, and I challenge you to explain how we could achieve an citation impact which is unprecedented for a medical informatics journal if we would publish crap for money, as you seem to imply. Many of our authors love the fast-track option, because they may have to be able to cite a certain paper for a grant deadline, need a paper for a PhD defense by a certain deadline, need to spend their grant money by a certain deadline, or are simply tired of waiting months for an initial decision, as seems to be the standard in many other journals.

    Your arguments and your actions throwing dirt at journals without any evidence or data supporting your view still make no sense to me. We will publish our experiences and our data shortly (because yes, Mr Sachs, we are academics, and are happy to engage in academic discourse, but not at the level of dirt-throwing), but in the meantime you may have a look at our (completely transparent) peer-review statistics to convince yourself that there is no evidence for taking “shortcuts”. There may well be side-effects which may or may not change the nature of scholarly communication, for better or for worse, and our experiment may provide valuable data for this, but personally I think the benefits outweigh the risks (and in my view it would be an advantage if more journals could offer predictable turnaround times). I am speaking as the editor-in-chief of JMIR, and to the specific fast-track model we have implemented – other journals or publishers may have other ways to implement fast-track, and I am speaking not for them.

    To answer your question on how we maintain “integrity of the process”: This is an ongoing experiment, and we monitor it closely by continuously auditing our review process, much as any serious publisher does. This includes auditing review times, review decisions, acceptance rates, and even reviewer quality, as rated by the editor and the submitting author. Our statics pages provide us with comparative data in the different tracks and experiments (FT vs nFT, OPR vs nOPR etc).

    Based on our preliminary analysis of these data, your argument that fast-tracked articles undergo a lighter peer-review is simply not supported by the data. The opposite is the case. In the last 67 fast-tracked articles, we sent out an average of 5.95 review requests (as opposed to 4.97 review requests for non-fast tracked articles). The average number of RECEIVED reviews for the fast tracked articles is 2.26 versus 1.83 for the fast-tracked articles. So on average, fast-tracked articles receive MORE peer-review than non fast-tracked articles – simply because the editor is more aggressive in assigning and pursuing reviewers.

    Second, your argument / allegation of “favoritism for money” doesn’t make any sense from a logical point of view. We have nothing to gain by accepting fast-tracked articles more likely than non-fast-tracked articles because the fast-tracked fee is paid by the author upfront independently on whether or not we accept the article, and is non-refundable (unless we screw up and don’t succeed to find peer-reviewers within the allotted time to make an initial decision or publish the article within 4 weeks after acceptance). In fact, if you argued the opposite it would make more sense, as from a strictly financial view it would be more efficient to just decline the fast-tracked articles. In particular because part of the JMIR fast-track package is our promise to publish the paper within 4 weeks after acceptance, hence every fast-tracked article which we accept creates additional pressure and costs during production.

    Lastly, as I argued previously elsewhere, your argument of “fairness” for those who have no research grants is also misguided. We DO waive fast-track fees for authors from developing countries, and in the industrialized world researchers have the same chance to apply at a granting agency for research grants (which usually contain line items for knowledge translation activities such as travel to conferences and publishing costs). Publishing is a service industry, and if you perceive it as unfair that those with less money can do less things, then you should also write letters to airlines, hotels, and conference organizers, accusing them of favoritism for those who can pay and present their work at conferences etc. It’s just an absurd idea.

    To answer your questions above:
    – we assign an appropriate number of reviewers and check every day to make sure that at least 3 reviewers have accepted the review request, if not, we contact another reviewer, and so on. The bottom-line is, that in the past 67 fast-tracked articles, we were only once in that situation where the editor felt no decision can be made. In these rare cases, we would contact the author, offer to refund the fast-track fee, and ask if he wishes to withdraw the paper or wait for a peer-review in the regular track. In the one case where the editor felt that an initial decision wasn’t possible within the promised turnaround time, the author actually did not want the refund, as he still saw some value in fast-tracking the article during production (which is the second part of our fast-track package).
    – all income is used to support the operational costs and professionals services of the journal. As we are not a subscription journal we have limited sources of revenue. All revenue must come from the research grants of the authors. Copyeditors, typesetters, third-party services, all expect to be paid. If we would not have the fast-track fee as an optional fee for those authors pressed for time and who have the money then we would have to raise our article processing fee or submission fee for ALL authors. In the past we have briefly experimented with a model where we gave a small financial incentive to reviewers of fast-tracked papers if they stick to the deadline, but have abandoned this as 1) the overhead for administering these small payments was too high, 2) only few reviewers seemed to care about getting paid. We are now in the process of implementing a system where FT reviewers will get credits for their own future fast-tracked submissions, but for this we will have to develop a software to administer payment credits.
    – editor: yes, reviewer: no (at the moment). The editor has to know it because he has to be more aggressive in terms of finding reviewers. As argued above, we do not follow your logic that editor or reviewers must be blind because they have nothing to gain or loose by either accepting or rejecting the manuscript – the fast-track fee is paid in advance independently from the outcome. Reviewers have 2 weeks time to complete the review, independently from FT or nFT status
    – we publish the turnaround times as well as the names of the reviewers at the bottom of all published manuscripts. As argued above, we do not follow the logic that fast-tracking has an impact on quality of the review process, thus we don’t agree with nFT articles being “sullied” by FT articles. We can certainly debate on whether or not we should specifically label FT articles – we have shied away from this so far because in some other journals fast-tracking is an editorial decision based on the perceived public health urgency of the content and we want to avoid confusion among readers in that regard (implying that fast-tracked articles are somehow more important by addressing an urgent problem – which may or may not be the case).
    – ok, we had all this debate already in the context of throwing dirt at open access journals (“receiving money for publishing science will undermine the quality/integrity of the process”). OA and other new business models which do not depend on reselling content to the readers/taxpayer is flourishing despite these unfounded allegations. If you look at the latest impact factors for medical informatics journals you will see that the impact factor of toll-access journals is declining while open access journals are gaining in impact (see http://www.jmir.org/announcement/view/44). This would not happen without the existence of open access journals and publishers with integrity which are committed to quality and who have the long-term sustainability of the model and their journals in mind. If you are so convinced that fast-tracking has an impact on quality then I challenge you to ask a panel of ehealth experts to identify – on the basis of quality alone (e.g. blinded by the turnaround times) – the 67 fast-tracked articles from the articles JMIR published in the last 5 years. If they accurately distinguish FT from nFT articles beyond chance (or if FT and nFT articles differ significantly in any other quality metrics such as citations) we will certainly reconsider our fast-track experiment. Until then I would ask you and those agreeing with you to refrain from unfounded allegations or accusations and in particular from any suggestions that what we do is in any way illegal or unethical. You know, libel and defamation (“a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group a negative image”) is also illegal, and many of the claims and comments on your blog would certainly fall into this category. So before you consider “media attention” or even “sending letters to the home institutions of the editors” you should be pretty darn sure that your allegations are based on facts and not mere “possibilities”.

    I am more than willing to engage in an academic debate, but such debate must be based on data and mutual respect – and many of the comments on the blog you are editing sadly lack both. I guess this is what academic discourse still mainly takes place in carefully edited journals.

    Gunther Eysenbach MD MPH
    Editor & Publisher, J Med Internet Res (http://www.jmir.org)
    Professor, Dept of Health Policy, Management, and Evaluation, University of Toronto

  3. Professor Eysenbach, thank you for your detailed explanation of the policy. Especially important was your detailing of the aspects of the policy which you believe prevent preferential treatment of the fee-paying authors (beyond the fast-tracking itself that they are paying for). It was great to hear that so far, if anything the fast-tracked manuscripts are receiving more reviews than the manuscripts that do not receive fast-track treatment. I wish that all journals were as transparent regarding policy as you have now made JMIR, as this would go a long way towards dispelling the concerns raised on my blog.

    To clarify my worry of favoritism for money that you suggested was illogical, the concern is that those at the journal in the know would be subtly biased to accept fee-paying manuscripts as that would encourage more fee-paying manuscripts in the future, boosting the journal’s bottom line.

    You suggest that I and presumably those who co-signed the original letter, if we consistently applied our concerns, should be writing to airlines and other service providers, accusing them of favoritism by transporting only paying customers to conferences. It is true that I wish impoverished scientists had all the same chances as richer ones, but I don’t expect any accommodation to be made for this outside the academic arena. So my efforts will continue to be directed at disadvantages within academia, especially new ones that might be nipped in the bud, such as fast-track fees. You make the point that most people within industrialized countries have a fair chance at getting a grant, and you suggest they usually contain line items for paying for things like publishing, but I am sad to report that the Australian Research Council expressly prohibits including such line items in one’s grant applications (I have been lobbying to get this policy changed).

    You make a few other points that I should consider carefully, especially the possibility that some of the comments written on my blog constitute libel or defamation. Like you, I have been surprised by the intensity of the reactions people (or conceivably, a sole individual) have posted on my blog. Although I strongly disagree with people suggesting that fast-track fees amount to extortion or bribery, my main concern until now has been to allow all comments (besides spam and ad hominem attacks that don’t mention anything of substance) to avoid any appearance of censorship on my blog. I hadn’t considered that some of the comments might actually be illegal. I’ll now have to seek legal advice regarding that, and develop a formal comment policy. Regarding the extreme comments in question, I completely agree they don’t seem to make sense and I really wonder what perspective such people are coming from. They do however suggest that people might misperceive fast-track policies to be more prejudicial than even I have fretted.

    Because we are discussing JMIR in particular here, I should take this opportunity to congratulate you on your experiment in OPR vs. nOPR (assuming that acronym stands for Open Peer Review). Open peer review is a great development for increasing the transparency of the scientific process, and I (and others, I think) would love to hear about the journal’s experience. I am also sympathetic to another issue you mention- how to get enough funds to pay for the services journals provide, although I continue to have my concerns about implementing fast-track fees for that purpose.

  4. Dr Eysenbach, you are to be congratulated for your robust reply and willingness to experiment and share the outcomes — and so throwing around thinly veiled threats of libel etc is therefore all the more beneath you.

    It is absurd to require Alex to censor the comments on his blog posts, and it would be reprehensible to try to intimidate him into doing so. I do not mean to claim that you are deliberately attempting such intimidation, but the chilling effect of your comments is clear in Alex’s reply.

    I can understand your discomfort with aggressive comments such as those from m. sachs above, but I think it important to keep those separate from Alex’s transparently good-faith effort to explore this new development in scholarly publishing.

  5. To clarify, I was not threatening to sue Alex over some of the comments on this blog. However, this very blog entry starts with the implied assertion that the optional fast-track fee we (and other journals) are charging to speed up the publication process is equivalent to “money [which can] buy you admission into a journal” and that this is “money being handed over to grease the wheels” (aka corruption) . As explained above (and in other replies), this is an absurd assertion, which is even more illogical than concerns over any other open access publishing fees, where there is a clear connection between acceptance of an article and paying the publisher (which is not the case for the fast-track fee, which is paid upfront independently of the outcome).
    I mentioned “libel” as a response to Alex’ “threat” of “getting some media attention to pressure the journals to address these issues” by pointing out that – if you decide to take this to the next level – your communications to the media (or any other third parties) should better be based on facts rather than on broad assertions that are made up out of thin air and that are factually wrong. I have no issue with you discussing actual unethical conduct at specific journals, but as you decided to lump together all journals I take accusations of bribery, corruptness, and unacademic behavior – even if they were meant to target the fast-track model as a whole – as a personal assault on my reputation and will have to respond with all means available. And obviously if you or anybody else goes down the route of taking it to the next level with unproven allegations I WILL defend myself, with legal means if necessary. My reputation is – both as a professor and as an editor/publisher – is important to me.

    I only mentioned the blog comments to point out that there is an apparent double-standard here – you publish some vicious comments and allegations on this blog (not only this specific blog entry, but elsewhere) which remained unmoderated, unedited, and unchallenged. What you call “censoring” I would call “editing and moderating” – perhaps it is old-fashioned but I think blog editors/publishers should be held accountable for the content on their blogs much as publishers/journal editors should be held accountable for the quality of the material they are publishing, and you don’t appear very credible if on one hand you accuse editors/publishers of unethical behavior while allowing a language (and leaving such comments unchallenged) on your blog which I find reprehensible and unethical, and which can potentially tarnish and destroy the reputation and livelihood of individuals.

    Alex’ “effort to explore this new development in scholarly publishing” is appreciated, and he asks some questions which need to be asked, but perhaps it would be a better approach to ask questions and gather the facts first, not to start with a broad petition and a media campaign assaulting all journals which are experimenting with this model, and then gather the facts later.

  6. Professor Eysenbach, I have never asserted or alleged that fast-track fee policies are equivalent to corruption or that it means that money can buy one’s way into a journal. I have not indulged in “broad assertions that are made up out of thin air and that are factually wrong”. What I have done is point out that fast-track fees raises an avenue whereby moneyed authors may be preferred- journals may be influenced by money into preferring their manuscripts. I as well as my co-authors on the letter recognize this as a real danger, one that imperils science’s reputation. I think your substantive objections are first that this association, because it has not been backed by empirical data, is unfair. Second, you suggest that the issue can be fairly easily resolved by numbers such as those you have provided. I disagree with both of these notions.

    Consider the case of gifts given by pharmaceutical companies to doctors or research grants given by pharmaceutical companies to doctors (thanks to a colleague of mine for pointing out this example). Doctors will claim that neither of these influence them into favoring the views of the corresponding companies. But they do (I will dig up the evidence if you contest this). As a psychologist, I am aware of how effective money is in biasing people, even money that does not go into people’s pockets but merely benefits the organizations they are associated with. Many others are also aware of this fact of human psychology, which is why they will presume that journals which charge fast-track fees will favor the fee-paying manuscripts. None of these statements need any specific evidence regarding fast-track journals, except that the fast-tracking not be double-blind (this is why I did not feel the need to ask the journals for numbers before raising my concerns). If the fast-tracking is double-blind, then there is no avenue for bias to enter the system, but as I wrote earlier it is unlikely that the journals involved can achieve this (although I’d like them to work on a system so that they can).

    The numbers you provide for your own journal are somewhat reassuring but they do not dispel the concerns, with respect to your own journal or any other. As you wrote, an empirical study would be appropriate here in which experts were asked to blindly judge the quality of fast-tracked vs. non-fast-tracked articles, as an indicator of whether the fast-tracked manuscripts are of lower quality.

    I think the case of wholly open-access journals is quite different, as I wrote earlier (http://bit.ly/kLXfi9). If all manuscript authors are paying a fee, except for a few that the reviewers and editors never know about, as is the case for PLoS ONE, there is no issue of preferential treatment.

    Regarding the comments made by others on my blog that you object to, as I said before I also disagree with most of those comments. I have a fairly radical attitude towards free speech, however- in the past I have even supported anonymous, unmoderated (except for ad hominem attacks and explicit language) comments on the websites of scientific journals. Most of my colleagues strongly oppose this, but that remains my view. It is my philosophy that in the age of the internet, people need to learn they will see all kinds of outrageous claims, and they simply need to assess them for themselves. They should not be protected from seeing such claims because any system of protection will have some bias against unconventional views or views that go against the system’s interest. However, you have written that some of these comments tarnish your reputation, which I sympathize with, and you have written that I should challenge these comments, which I am happy to do, so I’ll add some more comments near them. You have also written that some of the comments are illegal, which I have to investigate further.

    When you write “have a look at our (completely transparent) peer-review statistics to convince yourself that there is no evidence for taking ‘shortcuts'”, are these publicly available and are you willing to make them publicly available? I think the numbers you mention will reassure us that our worst fears regarding bias, such as fewer reviews for fast-tracked manuscripts, have not come to fruition in the case of JMIR (although the possibility of bias when the editor makes his/her decision remains). I think a lot depends on the details of the implementation of any fast-track policy, so these numbers may unfortunately not do much to dispel the concerns of people in the case of the other journals. None of the other journals have yet to give any reply to the concerns articulated in our group letter (a few have simply canceled their fast-track policy).

    Both you and I wish to protect journals’ reputation of publishing things based only on the validity of an article’s science rather than the money for the journal associated with that article. You have done science a favor by transparently explaining your protections against bias and providing numbers that provide some support that these protections are effective. I hope you will formally provide and explain these numbers in an appropriate place like your journal’s website. Because of the evidence regarding the effectiveness of money in biasing people, these numbers don’t dispel my concerns, so I’d prefer the fast-track policy be canceled, but if you continue it I hope your journal will be very transparent about it, and maybe other journals will follow suit.

  7. Our review stats are indeed transparent, real-time fast-track stats are available at http://www.jmir.org/reviewer/fastTrackStats/

    I have explained some of these data on my blog at http://gunther-eysenbach.blogspot.com/2011/07/jmirs-fast-track-experiment-innovations.html (if there are any questions please comment there. I will no longer comment on this blog).

    Although you said you will not be swayed by statistics, I’ll summarize the data, which are hard to reconcile with your concerns over “favoring” fast-tracked articles beyond faster processing, e.g.:
    – FT articles have MORE reviewers than nFT articles
    – FT articles have virtually the SAME acceptance rate as nFT articles
    – FT articles have the same reviewer ratings as nFT articles

    I am happy to supply a list of FT’ed articles if you want to do an analysis of their quality relative to nFT articles (this could be a simple citation analysis).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s