‘The Peer-Review Crisis’

Colleen Flaherty, writing for Inside Higher Ed:

Roland Hatzenpichler, assistant professor of environmental microbiology at Montana State University, said it’s been about a year since he started refusing to review for for-profit journals for free. In response to one journal’s recent request that he review an article, for instance, Hatzenpichler thanked the editor for the invite but said that because the publication is owned by a major for-profit company with high profit margins, “my consulting fee of $200 per hour applies. Please let me know if these terms are acceptable and I will consider whether I can accept the invitation and/or suggest alternative reviewers. Please note that I will charge a one-time fee of $50 for the latter because I would be effectively doing the work you are being paid for free otherwise.” No journal has taken Hatzenpichler upon his offer thus far. He doesn’t necessarily expect any to do so. He won’t stop asking, however.

Nice idea, nice wording (“my consulting fee… applies”). Asking for payment for the oligopolists is the easy case, however. Much thornier is whether all reviewers should be paid. My thinking on this question has evolved. I used to view volunteer reviewing in terms of the academic’s vocation, as a potent symbol of an anti-pecuniary calling. The first three words of the original Budapest declaration are “An old tradition”—the “willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge.” Reviewing, likewise.

The main reason that conviction has eroded is the broken academic contract: the turn to adjuncts, the decimation of humanities disciplines, and the related turn to market values in higher ed worldwide. If universities don’t hold up their end, citing the scholarly vocation to review for free feels like part of the swindle.

‘Amazon joins race for quantum computer with new Caltech center’

Jeanne Whalen, writing for The Washington Post (paywalled) on Amazon’s play for quantum computing :

Amazon will base its quantum team at a new center on the campus of Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., which officially opens this week. Caltech described it as the first “corporate-partnership building” on the university’s campus, showing “Caltech’s interests in bringing fundamental science to the marketplace.”

According to The Post, the deal entails Amazon renting land from Caltech for the center, which will be run by a pair of on-leave Caltech professors now working for the tech giant. The article quotes one of the Caltech prof-turned-Amazon-employees:

[Brandao] said Caltech would also benefit because academics need the deep pockets of industry to scale up quantum machines. “It’s not cheap to do that, it’s not easy to do that,” he said. “It’s not something that people can do just at universities. So we need industry there.”

In many ways this open embrace of corporate research is an old story, dating back to MIT in the early 20th century or—in its recent wave—biotech entanglements in the 1980s. What’s new is how commonplace—how humdrum—the mutual bear hug has become.

‘Replacing Academic Journals’

Björn Brembs and nine co-authors, in a sweeping paper posted to Zenodo last fall:

There is now a very real threat of a single (or few) corporations effectively owning all scientific data, both research data and user data, on top of their share of the scholarly literature. […] The break will not be technological, as all the technology for the disruption already exists, but with regard to governance. In general, there is broad agreement on the goal for a modern scholarly digital infrastructure: it needs to replace traditional journals with a decentralized, resilient, evolvable network that is interconnected by open standards, that allow seamlessly moving from one provider to another, under the governance of the scholarly community, de-centering the journal article as the sole scientific output that “counts”.

It’s an important paper, with a sharp diagnosis of the oligopolist stranglehold—a “public good in private hands,” as the authors put it.

There’s lots to unpack in the Brembsian alternative proposed here. One cornerstone is the adoption of open standards that—as best I understand it—would enable university repositories and nonprofit, community-led platforms like Open Library of Humanities (OLH) to form a kind of global, interoperable library. A second cornerstone is a regulated market for services. In an open procurement process, publishers and other firms—nonprofit or otherwise—would submit bids for peer review services, for example, or for copy editing or even writing software. The idea is that a regulated marketplace will, through competition enabled by open standards, discipline the overall system’s cost.

It’s a fascinating proposal, one that—as the paper notes—could be implemented with existing technologies. The problem is the lever of change. The incumbent publishers’ entrenched position, Brembs et al explain, renders a first move by libraries or scholars impractical. That leaves funders, whose updated rules and review criteria could, the paper argues, tip the incentive structure in the direction of an open, journal-free alternative.

There’s a lot to chew on in what is an exciting, radical blueprint. One facet of the current system that the paper underplays, however, is the journal system’s prestige lock-in. It’s not just outdated procurement rules that stand in the way of the journal’s demise, but also entrenched features of the scholarly reward system. That system, to some large extent, exists in scholars’ heads, as reinforced and reproduced by the tenure and promotion process. Maybe funder rules can erode those norms, but work to reform the reward system should happen in tandem with funder-driven incentives—along the lines that Juan Alperin and colleagues are suggesting.

A second friendly annotation to the Brembs paper has to do with its implicit orientation to nomothetic disciplines. The paper designates the replication crisis as one of three driving problems in the current system. Likewise, in the paper’s imagined future, there’s a discussion of hypotheses generated by machine learning models, which, the authors write, “will help mitigate researchers’ all too human tendencies to cut corners, tell stories or cheat.” Hmmm. The contrast between machine and human is too tightly drawn, and the premise of AI value-freedom is hard to defend. More to the point, replication and hypothesis testing make no sense—that is, they do not apply—to idiographic fields, many of which reside in the humanities. There’s a hidden parochialism in the paper’s assumptions about what academic knowledge is.

Quibbles aside, the paper is a thrilling template for an alternative future.

A final thought: I hope that Brembs et al are in contact with the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), which just received a $4 million grant from Arcadia for its ongoing project to build a “standard, interoperable, and decentralised approach” to a global network of networks.

On the heels of the UNESCO and Budapest recommendations, with a boost from Brembs et al and COAR, maybe—just maybe—an APC-free, community-led scholarly publishing system is within reach.

‘Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) Formalized as NISO Standard’

Speaking of persistent identifiers, NISO annointed the CRediT taxonomy as an official standard in February. The core bundle of roles to credit has been around since 2014:

  • Conceptualization
  • Data curation
  • Formal analysis
  • Funding acquisition
  • Investigation
  • Methodology
  • Project administration
  • Resources
  • Software
  • Supervision
  • Validation
  • Visualization
  • Writing – original draft
  • Writing – review & editing

It’s a fascinating reflection of what academic knowledge is: modular, stepwise, nomothetic, hypothesis-driven, grant-funded, and team-based. It’s knoweldge as refracted through the well-funded lab—science as a metonym for academic inquiry writ large. Post-war “big science” in taxonomic relief, as endorsed by 34 organizations (including many of the giant publishers). Here’s hoping an STS grad student is tidying up her dissertation on the process.

Neither “monograph” nor “humanities” appear in the lengthy standards doc, of course. The idiographic fields—with their tendency for unfunded, lone-wolfe inquiry—aren’t a good fit for NISO Z39.104-2022. Conceptualization first, writing second? “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

‘Why Publishers Should Care About Persistent Identifiers’

Phill Jones and Alice Meadows, in a Scholarly Kitchen post urging publishers to go all in with persistent identifiers like ORCID:

Over the last few years, there has been significant progress in developing recommendations, policies, and procedures for creating, promoting, and using persistent identifiers (PIDs). […] Publishers — and publishing system providers — were early and enthusiastic adopters of persistent identifiers. […] Nevertheless, we think it’s fair to say that many — probably most — publishers aren’t realizing the full potential of PIDs. DOIs are being registered for most publications (especially Crossref DOIs) and ORCID iDs are being collected, but their full value — for authors and publishers alike — isn’t currently being exploited.

“Exploited” is an interesting verb in this context.

The benefits of persistent identifiers—including new-ish entrants like the ROR organization ID—are obvious, and Jones and Meadows make the case in this and a follow-up post.

But there are reasons, too, to be cautious about a “PID-optimized world,” to borrow their phrase. One is that an ID-for-everything system promises to feed the quantified research-assessment culture—the one that’s ruined UK higher ed and, in its worldwide overspread, is complicit in the re-casting of the university as an economic engine.

The other, related issue is that all this interlinked data will make it easier for the big publishers to create prediction products, only to sell back to universities and research-assessment offices at steep premiums. We are, in a PID-optimized world, shoveling coal into the furnace of surveillance publishing.

Jones and Meadows, indeed, pitch the business case to publishers directly: “This information,” they write, “doesn’t just flow from publisher systems; it can flow into them too, enabling […] better (and easier) business insights.”

Yikes. And who knew there is a PIDapoolaz?

‘Open access in low-income countries — open letter on equity’

From a new and important open letter signed by 17 Nobel laureates and more than 30 international organizations:

The exorbitant article processing charges (APC) that come hand-in-hand with the Author-Pays OA publishing model deepens the inequality between researchers from developed countries and those in lower income countries. […] In developing countries, APC associated with the publication of scientific articles could represent a large proportion of the annual grants (as much as 35-130%).

The letter, spearheaded by a group of young scientists, calls out Plan S for its friendly fire, and cites the momentum behind the UNESCO Recommendation. Among other suggestions, the letter calls for the creation of an ad hoc worldwide committee, a Global Initiative for Equitable OA Models.

This is one to watch—and join.

Jeff Pooley is professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College and director of mediastudies.press, an open access scholarly publisher.

pooley@muhlenberg.edu | press@mediastudies.press

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