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)