Comment on Phillip Davis’s “The Market for Scholarly Articles”

January 28, 2009

As Phillip Davis writes (reprinted in the IMS Bulletin), scholarly authors are driven to publish in journals because that is the way to have their work noticed and readers read journals because these provide some measure of quality assurance. Davis is wrong, however, on multiple counts, when he concludes: “This system is not intended to be fair and democratic, but it saves the time of the reader and functions to help consensus building in science. For those who feel that this perpetuates hegemony, let them eat cake.”

The academic publishing system is intended to be fair; the current system (though better than nothing) performs poorly as a time saving tool for the reader; “consensus forming” (i.e., suppressing non-conventional thought) is not a legitimate function of a scientific communication channel; and, finally, there is no reason to dismiss people who are unhappy with the current system with “let them eat cake”: there is a better way to run the scholarly publishing system.

Davis points at one disadvantage of the current academic publishing system (“the peer-review system”, PRS): it tends to establish an elite of influential researchers that can to a significant extent control what is being published (not as individuals, but as a class) through the “peer-review” vetting system. It would therefore be more accurate to call the PRS the “authority review system”.

A more crucial problem of the PRS, however, is the fact that it turns the publishing researcher into a self-promoter – a one person PR apparatus that is the antithesis of a thorough, careful scientist. Researchers are encouraged – indeed, in some ways forced – to publish at a very high rate. Originality and quality are thus de-emphasized in favor of repetitiveness and incrementalism. Complexity is preferred over simplicity. Scientific fads are intensified. Personal animosities are accentuated. Scientific caution (in short supply even at the best of times) falls prey to the need to create an attractive paper.

All this, of course, does not create a positive working environment for the publishing researchers and surely does not result in better reading material for the scientific audience.

Many researchers, although they are very much aware of the shortcomings of the PRS, see it as the best that can be achieved. I wish to offer an alternative that I believe would be superior: the self-review system (SRS). Under this system every researcher has a guaranteed publishing quota. This can be set at any rate, but I think it should be set a low, comfortable level – say, one paper every two years.

I call the proposed system the “self-review system”, since it is left up to the researcher to make sure that their paper is of high quality. With one paper every two years, the researcher has both the time and the motivation to make that paper the best he or she can offer.

Peer review can and should still play a role, but as an advisory process rather than as a vetting process. Every paper submitted for publication will be reviewed and the authors may use the referees’ reports to improve the paper (or they may choose not to – it would be up to them). The reports can also be published together with the paper, leading to a discussion that would be of interest to the readers.

The SRS removes many of the perverse incentives that plague the PRS. In addition, it is less prone to manipulation and accumulation of power. Using the SRS would surely be a break with tradition, but, just like the French Monarchy, the PRS is a tradition in sore need of a fundamental revision.

This post was sent as a letter to the editors of the IMS Bulletin.

Update: Relevant paper, making similar points, quoting some illuminating empirical findings: Something Rotten at the Core of Science? by David F. Horrobin.

Update: The IMS Bulletin published this post in the Letters section of Issue 2 of Volume 38.

Update: Prof. R. B. Bapat of the Indian Statistical Institute referred me to his December 2007 presidential address to the Indian Mathematical Society Annual Conference in which he suggested the idea of self-review. In the address, Prof. Bapat said (pp. 3-4):

I wish to propose a scheme, which addresses the question of decreasing the number of publications to some extent. There can be free, possibly electronic, journals, run by well-established societies or academies, in which all papers are by invitation only. Papers must be refereed but the role of the referee must be limited mainly to checking for correctness, style etc. To fix ideas, suppose one such journal is called The Free Journal of Combinatorics. The job of the editorial board of this journal would be to identify promising mathematicians in Combinatorics, at all levels, and invite them to contribute one paper to the journal per year for the next five years. The author in turn should agree to (i) submit the best of his work to the journal and (ii) to restrict his publications in other journals to either zero or a very small number. If the journal acquires enough prestige, then being an invited author of the journal will carry lot of value and then there is no need to publish more. Also in the course of a few years the Free Journal of Combinatorics will be a reflection of the best work in the area of Combinatorics and give a fair picture of the development of the subject.

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2 Responses to “Comment on Phillip Davis’s “The Market for Scholarly Articles””

  1. RZ Says:

    So are you proposing that every researcher is guaranteed a slot periodically in each journal?

    Who determines who is a “researcher”?
    What about basic “anti-crank” protection?

  2. yoramgat Says:

    Hi RZ,

    So are you proposing that every researcher is guaranteed a slot periodically in each journal?

    No – a guaranteed slot in any single journal. One paper every two or three years, total. More details here: The self-review system.

    Who determines who is a “researcher”? What about basic “anti-crank” protection?

    Ideally, and probably usually, the title “researcher” would be based solely on self-selection. Cranks should not be a serious problem because there aren’t that many of them. The occasional crank paper should be easy for the readers to detect and skip over.

    A more difficult problem could arise, in my opinion, in cases where a concerted attack is attempted. A community of creationists could, for example, attempt to flood an evolutionary genetics journal with creationist literature. In such cases, an explicit authorship barrier would need to be set up.

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