The Cost of Peer Review (and notes on open access publishing)

This past week there were some excited and interesting buzz about Sarah Bond’s post on open access resources for teaching on her blog. It’s a nice post and makes the point that open access scholarship isn’t just “a movement, but also an ideology.” That’s a great sentiment.

As with all ideologies (and movements), their value is not just in what they represent or the ideas behind them, but in their execution. Open access publishing faces significant economic and structural challenges that will shape the nature of scholarly publishing (open and otherwise) in the future. I’ve proposed that one way to make open access publishing more viable is to recognize the basic economies of small-scale, distributed, scholar-led open publishing are not the same as a commercial (even a non-profit) press. In other words, certain elements of publishing do not scale in a consistent economic way and this provides an opportunity for small presses with limited resources and the focused publishing goals of most scholar-led publishing. The costs of marketing, archival infrastructure, distribution, and production remain, but the growing ecosystem of print-on-demand technology, institutional and collective repositories, targeted social media marketing, and low cost production workflows makes it possible for a micro-press to survive and even thrive without a big budget or sustaining funds. One can even imagine a future where small or mid-sized academic publishing outfits collaborate to promote their collective work. 

The model for small-scale, distributed, scholar-led academic publishing involves rethinking a good bit of what it means to publish in an academic setting. Scholar-led publishing might productively complicate the already blurry lines between research, writing, and publishing. Scholars (and academic departments) used to recognizing high-quality scholarship by the mark of a traditional, high-prestige publisher may have to expand their perspectives to include a wider range of more diverse outlets. We might even have to consider the relative value of certain publishing standards whether it our preference for paper (and its corresponding prestige), the form of the monograph, or the standards of citation, copy editing, and production. In short, the decentralization of publishing that may accompany the rise of open access academic presses will require us to change how we understand both the production and consumption of new knowledge    

This broader conversation almost always turns in some way toward peer review. As publishing has changed, scholars have clung increasingly to peer review as fundamental to the project of academic knowledge making. Historically, this is, of course, true. At the same time, peer review has endured any number of recent critiques, and some valuable efforts to create new standards of transparency. It remains unclear, however, how peer review will work with new publishing models that emphasize collaboration throughout the publishing process or represent visible, iterative approaches to writing and research. Certain approaches to collective and collaborative knowledge making will undoubtedly complicate when and where peer review should or could occur in the process.  

One assumption that has come to the fore recently is that peer review is free at least from the perspective of the reviewing scholar (who are rarely compensated or compensated at a very low rate) and the scholar under review. In fact, some scholars have refused to review for journals published by larger, for-profit, publishing companies (Elsevier or Springer, for example), and, I understand that. Reviewing an article for publication and then realizing that your library doesn’t subscribe to that journal and that you’d have to purchase the article fo $45 feels like a violation of some kind of academic reciprocity. Reviewing a manuscript is a ton of work and it’s hard to perform this kind of academic service while knowing that someone somewhere sees our willingness to do this kind of work for free as part of “shareholder value.” (I review too much and recently I’ve followed the lead of some of my colleagues and decided to review no more than a dozen manuscripts or grant proposals a year. I always ask for a copy of the article or book when it appears and rarely receive one.) 

As a small publisher, however, I’ve started to see peer review a bit differently. It’s not actually free for the press and part of the reciprocal relationship between the reviewer and the publisher  is manifest in the process (rather than simply the outcome). This year my small press has had four manuscripts and two proposals out for review. I’m very fortunate to have generous, thoughtful, and collegial reviewers for all these works despite having very little to offer the reviewer, up front, in exchange for their work.

At the same time, it is naive to think that the peer review process does not have a cost. Since my press deals largely with book length manuscripts and we attempt to limit our publication schedule to four books per year, we do not have the scale to leverage submission management software to streamline our reviews. As a result, the press corresponds with each reviewer individually. We also seek to work with a diverse range of reviewers in terms of academic rank, gender, experience, expertise, and perspective. This means recognizing and understanding the competing obligations that reviewers have in their professional lives, being patient with deadlines, structuring the reviews to prevent the reviewers from doing unnecessary or duplicated work, and keeping tabs on often over-extended reviewers for whom a review can all too easily slip through the cracks of their busy lives. Once we receive the reviews, we also read them carefully for clarity and negotiate different reviewing preferences which range from long-form essays in a single document, to notes in an email, line-by-line commentaries, and comments inserted into the manuscript itself. Because reviewers have distinctive workflows and pressures on their time, we do all we can to respect their style of review. We then compile the reviews into a single document to both ensure that the reviewers remain anonymous and also to smooth redundancy. We also prepare for the authors a summery of the reviewers’ statements in an effort to communicate the press’s perspective on the most significant critiques. Most of our books circulate to three or more reviewers. 

All told, the review process alone accounts for close to 25% of the energy and time that the press puts into a manuscript. Circulating manuscripts for review have other costs to the press as well. First, there’s always a chance that a manuscript is rejected entirely. Since the press works closely with many authors from well before a manuscript goes for review, this entails risk and a commitment of resources that may or may not result in a publication. Secondly, peer review itself is a process that can be very irregular. Peer reviewers have complicated careers and lives and reviews often cannot be completed on a fixed schedule. (It’s interesting that some larger open access now are asking the peer reviews be returned in 7 days in an effort to streamline workflow). Once reviews go to the authors, the revision process will also vary depending upon the reviews and the schedules of the author. All this variability means that things like copy editing, production, and marketing for a new title must remain flexible, but this flexibility entails costs. High quality, reasonably priced copy editors often have tight schedules and getting a manuscript in a queue can be difficult. Marketing, particular at the annual meetings of professional organization, is often arranged months and months in advance so a missed deadline means marketing dollars that don’t align with the appearance of a publication.

None of these challenges diminish the academic or intellectual value of peer review, but I wonder if it changes the equation a bit when thinking about peer review as reciprocal practice. From the perspective of a small press, peer review is not something that we take for granted from our reviewers because it’s not free for us. The book, on the other hand, will be free. This expanded view of reciprocity reflects the kind of change in thinking that new publishing models will require. It is unlikely to make everyone happy —as the kidz say, “reciprocity doesn’t pay the rent” — but some shifts in both expectation and the structural understanding of the publication process seems necessary to produce a successful and sustainable open access model.

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