Objection-reply: Whether the upfront payment model corrupts peer review at open-access journals
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #71
March 2, 2004
by Peter Suber
Commercial publishers used to object to OA journals on the ground that they bypassed peer review.  But that was clearly false.  The latest refinement of the objection is that peer review at OA journals cannot be trusted.  It must be compromised or corrupted by the business model, which covers expenses by charging an upfront fee on accepted articles.  Such journals will have an incentive, the argument goes, to accept any paper from a paying author.

(1) Do OA journals have an incentive to accept more papers in order to collect more processing fees?

There's an important distinction to recognize right here at the threshold.  An OA journal that really wanted to generate more revenue by accepting more papers could keep its peer-review standard high and accept more excellent papers or it could lower its standard and accept more weak papers. 

Even though the objection focuses on the second possibility, let's consider the first one briefly before moving on.  OA journals are free of the space or volume constraints on print journals, and those with a large number of excellent submissions could certainly respond by publishing more of them.  If they do, then you could criticize them for aggravating information overload or praise them for taking advantage of the new medium.  But you couldn't complain that they were compromising peer review.  They would increase the quantity of high-quality literature, not decrease the quality of any literature.

(2) Now consider the second alternative.  Will OA journals have an incentive to lower their standard and accept weak papers?

OA journals could collect more fees this way, sure, just as you could collect fees by juggling at a subway station.  But that is very far from creating a real *incentive* to do so.

Only an incredibly short-sighted publisher would lower its standard in exchange for processing fees.  The reason is simply that OA journals, like traditional journals, depend on their reputation for quality in order to attract authors and readers.  Any plan to increase revenue by decreasing quality would be self-subverting and short-term at best.

But perhaps some OA publishers are short-sighted in just this way, and will undermine their long-term business model for short-term gain.  It's possible.  After all, some conventional publishers are short-sighted enough to raise their prices until libraries cancel their titles by the hundreds.  But if some OA publishers are short-sighted in this way, then the objection has to shift.  The problem would not be that the OA business model compromises peer review, since the OA business model would be satisfied even better by a steady stream of excellent papers.  The problem would be that some publishers are foolish and some journals low in quality, which is certainly true, on both sides of the OA line.

Just as OA journals with a large number of excellent submissions are free to publish long issues, those with a small number are free to publish short issues.  They are under no pressure to accept weak submissions just to fill an allotted space or to give subscribers their money's worth.  There is no allotted space and there are no subscribers.  In this sense, they are better insulated than conventional journals against pressures to lower their standard.

(3) Processing fees barely cover a journal's expenses.  Some OA journals break even and some lose money.  Once an OA journal is successfully launched, the idea is for the processing fee on an article to cover the costs of reviewing and publishing that article, with a little left over to subsidize the review of rejected papers and the publication of accepted papers by authors who received fee waivers because of economic hardship. 

Even if there's another increment built in to the fee, for modest profit, it is much lower than the profit margins seen at commercial publishers.  As Jan Velterop, the publisher of BioMed Central, likes to say:  there can be profit in OA publishing, but it will be much more in line with the value added by the publisher.  BMC isn't in the black yet.  But even when it is, its journals would lose much more by accepting weak papers than they would gain from collecting their fees.

Commercial journals publicly justify price hikes by pointing to the growing number of published articles.  But this gives them the same incentive that they impute to OA journals.  They could increase their revenue by accepting more articles.  If they don't have enough excellent submissions, they could increase their revenue by lowering their standard. 

It may be that some journals in some circumstances will be tempted to lower their quality in exchange for a short-term bump in revenue.  But if so, it's much more likely at high-profit journals, where the additional articles could justify a significant price hike, than at OA journals, where the fees barely cover their expenses.

(4) Some OA journals, especially those with high rejection rates, are considering a separate submission fee that would cover the cost of peer review, even for rejected papers.  This would make the processing fee for accepted articles independent of the journal's rejection rate and help keep it as low as possible. 

One objection to submission fees is that they would deter submissions.  Maybe they would.  But would they corrupt peer review?  Clearly not.  They would be paid by both accepted and rejected articles.  A journal could not increase its revenue from submission fees by lowering its peer-review standard and accepting more submissions.  On the contrary, a journal could only increase its revenue from submission fees by attracting more submissions, which requires a reputation for excellence.

(5) Traditional journals face conflicts of interest, for example, when authors work for advertisers, subscribers, funders, or other institutions that support the journal.  These conflicts are routine and experienced editors are accustomed to dealing with them.  Journals have formal and informal firewalls to insulate business decisions from scientific decisions.  Conventional and OA journals have the same interests and problems in this respect and there's no reason to think one kind of journal is more vigilant or virtuous than the other kind.

There are many ways to build this firewall.  For example at PLoS, every article is seen by at least one academic editor who does not work for PLoS, is not paid by PLoS, and who has no financial stake in the outcome.  At both PLoS and BMC, article referees do not know whether authors have requested fee waivers, let alone whether the waivers have been approved.  So they cannot tell whether accepting the article will bring any revenue to the journal.  As for editors, at PLoS they are like referees in this regard; at BMC they can know if they ask but they don't ask.  They are more concerned about the quality of the articles they are vetting than the finances of the author, which are dealt with by others in the enterprise.

Both PLoS Biology and BMC's Journal of Biology have Nobel laureates on their editorial board.  The Executive Director of PLoS is Vivien Siegel, who came from Cell.  The Editor of BMC's JBiol is Theodora Bloom, who came from Nature, and the Editor-in-Chief is Martin Raff, one of the 10 most-cited scientists in the UK.  It's preposterous to suggest that these scientists don't take peer review seriously or that they let a journal's business model alter their scientific judgment.

All this shows what really needs no demonstration:  the rigor of peer review is independent of the price, medium, and funding model of a journal.  OA may threaten the profits and market position of some publishers, but it does not threaten the quality of published science.

* Postscript.  I thank Barbara Cohen, Senior Editor at the Public Library of Science, and Jan Velterop, Publisher of BioMed Central, for phone and email interviews that helped me write this story.


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