A modern moral-economic perspective on peer-review

This is addressed to editors who ask me to review for profit-making journals, and to other interested parties. If you are an editor who I have declined to review for and feel that for some reason these arguments do not apply in your case, please feel free to let me know and I will reconsider my decision.

Researchers undertake to review others' work, unsung and not directly rewarded, simply because we expect that others will review our own manuscripts. The fact that this system has not already collapsed due to free-riding is testament to the human ability to unselfishly think of the greater good. However, I have become increasingly aware that there is another sort of free-riding going on.

The system is underwritten by public money - we use our state-funded working time to review because publishers do not pay us. However, the publishing companies who run the journals have huge profit margins (typically around 35%). This profit margin is hardly surprising given that review work is free to the publisher, and that subscriptions to journals are so expensive that many universities (including my own) cannot afford subscriptions to major journals. The noble and non-commercial enterprise of reciprocal peer-review is therefore exploited by commercial actors, at great expense to the tax-payer and to the detriment of the free availability of scientific knowledge. At the time when the commercial model was the only model known to work, this was maybe defensible. Now, however, we know that non-commercial publishers such as PLOS can successfully run quality scientific journals. Having read around the subject, I have yet to see a convincing argument why those of us with the power to say yes or no should continue to allow huge amounts of public money to disappear into the coffers of large corporations.

My own situation: having recently changed job I have doubled my teaching time, and can therefore no longer automatically accept all invitations to review. Forced to make a decision about the basis on which to select, I have decided to focus on reviewing for non-commercial journals. I am not (yet) boycotting commercial journals and may occasionally review articles for such journals if I think the article looks very interesting. However, I think the moral case I make here is hard to answer, and I would encourage (for example) learned societies running journals to reconsider which publishers they partner with in future.

Please feel free to contact me if you have opinions on these arguments.

Ben Kenward 22/3/2016

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