At 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve, my inbox chimed. Pictures of my nieces all snug in their beds? No, an invitation from a scientific journal to review an article on the topic of dengue surveillance in Thailand, kindly requesting that I take no more than seven days. This was not spam, it was legit. Colleagues of mine have published in this journal, although it has a low bar to entry, publishing some 5,000 articles in 2019 alone. The journal claims to have its operational headquarters in Switzerland, meaning the request was really sent at 4:00 am on Christmas morning, but more likely the request originated in China. Whether it was from a living human or a human-impersonating bot, I have no way to tell.
To publish an article in this journal costs $2,000. It does offer discounts for reviewers, and I believe if I had provided the requested feedback on dengue surveillance in Thailand I would have been entitled to a 25% discount on my next article. The published articles are free to read for anyone with an Internet connection.
Using $1,500 as the average amount paid means this journal took in $7.5 million last year to host a drab web site where all of the real labor — writing, reviewing, revising, and editing — was done for free. This is not an isolated example, even within my field. The money comes out of research grants, primarily taxpayer-funded, which means that anyone reading this article has unwittingly chipped in a few dollars toward international web page hosting. It’s the most lucrative — and ludicrous — business model I have seen.
It is also a predictable consequence of what happens when the number of papers you publish is the primary metric for determining whether you get to keep your academic job. I have never been in this situation myself, never having held a full-time university appointment. But I’ve written a lot papers anyway, over 70 in the past 20 years, the primary author on about half. I did this not for any tangible reward, but simply because I like to write, I believe in the value of communicating one’s research results, and it kept my job interesting.
Now that I have moved on to freelance consulting in semi-retirement, I have even less incentive to donate my money or labor to those I’ll never meet. It does not mean I will cease doing so — one of my clients has a faculty appointment at a research hospital, and will ultimately need to deliver some publications. She might even elect to pay $1,500, or even more, and I will have little say in the matter. For myself, I still have the same motivations to write as before, so it seems worth looking at the alternatives.
I could submit my work to traditional, subscriber-supported journals, of course, as I’ve done for most of my career. A few of these still come out in paper editions, which I find appealing, carbon footprint aside. These journals have few if any individual subscribers as annual subscription costs run well into the thousands of dollars. Instead, the subscriber base mostly consists of libraries at research universities. This creates the opposite problem of the pay-to-publish model. The public has funded the research with their tax dollars but has limited access to its results. Without a university affiliation, your options are to pay an outrageous per-article fee ($35 is a typical starting point) or locate a pirated copy hosted in a country that is indifferent to international copyright law. You could also try contacting the author, but I find that only works about half the time. Some public agencies have begun to require that publications resulting from their funding be made freely available, but this still covers a small minority of published papers. Even here, publishers retain exclusive rights during an embargo period of up to 12 months.
As with author-paid journals, in subscriber-paid journals all of the writing, reviewing, and revising is donated. Some do provide copy editing, making for better English with fewer typos. Nearly all are now published by one of a handful of international publishing conglomerates, and while their profit margins may not be as high as with author-paid journals, they are still high by the standards of capitalism. Public dollars still end up flowing to well-paid middlemen, just in a less obvious way.
A third option is to publish my work in a free online pre-print repository such as SSRN, ArXiv, BioRxiv, or (in my field), MedRxiv, where the letters rxiv are pronounced “archive”. In addition to being free to publish in and download from, these sites allow and encourage the submission of updated versions of papers as additional data are obtained or new insights drawn. It is common to locate an error in a paper that does not rise to the level of a retraction or an erratum, or to discover a slightly better way of presenting results that does not lend itself to the publication of an entirely new paper. The preprint sites solve this problem. And while they do not provide peer review in the traditional sense, they do offer public feedback options that in principle serve the same purpose. As few papers receive any feedback, this idea has not fulfilled its promise. But I am not convinced this is a critical weakness. While I think that peer review as improved my papers in the aggregate, there have been plenty of instances where it has made them worse, usually by requiring extended analysis or discussion of some tangential point. More crucially, peer review rarely applies to the underlying data. If I had agreed to review the dengue fever paper — a topic about which I know little, by the way — I likely would have offered some suggestions to tidy the English, maybe questioned the framing of a discussion point, but would have had no access to the data themselves. Unless the numbers violate common sense, I must trust they were not miscoded, manipulated or fabricated.
The preprint sites are not an open forum – they do have what I call “crackpot filters”, so you safe from conspiracy theories and perpetual motion machines. Some garbage still gets through, though, so score one for traditional peer review. Maybe score only one-half; there is ample peer-reviewed garbage out there as well.
Online repositories are a hard sell to any co-authors, most of whom need the credentials of formal peer review to advance their careers. Even many who do not need these credentials long ago internalized the idea that appearing in The International Journal of Whatever is the only route to prestige. Some who see its merits are nonetheless deterred by language such as “This article is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed. It reports new medical research that has yet to be evaluated and so should not be used to guide medical practice” (on MedXriv).
The solution is that it is possible to play both sides. Produce two versions of the work, one freely accessible to all and one locked behind a paywall with an impressive-sounding title. But skip the author-paid option, which offers the best features of neither. Which is why, a few days after Christmas, I kindly requested that I be removed from a particular journal’s list of reviewers.
(Update: I originally wrote this in January, 2020. I still got two or three review requests from the journal in question during 2020, which I declined.)