16 December 2011

On refereeing

I'm not sure why I haven't bothered to comment on this before; but I have just received yet another peremptory demand to referee an article for an academic journal. It came via boiler-plate email, demanding a report within 30 days, or that I go to a website to excuse myself...

It creeps up on us. I remember, 30-odd years ago, how flattered I was to be asked to review an article for a journal--and to be paid for it. In 1978, I received £25.00, for reviewing one such article. How things have changed!

Let's be clear. The "request" I received has nothing to do with the journal itself. It is entirely a manipulative bluff on the part of publishers who have cornered the market in journals, with an amazing business model:
  • The content is provided for free.
  • Publishers may even demand that authors or their institutions pay for publication, at the rate of hundreds of dollars per page.
  • The editors work for free
  • As do the editorial boards
  • And the referees
  • And increasingly the journals are not even printed in hard copy
  • And subscriptions are bundled together so that libraries which want just a few useful ones are compelled to accept a lot of dross as well--and to pay for it. At least they no longer have to find shelf space for it.
He's writing in the context of academic publishing in science, but David Colquhoun has a coruscating expose of the scam here: scroll down to the "Extortionate cost of publishing" sub-head for the most relevant stuff.
  • Be amazed at how much just one university (UCL) is paying these publishers! And then...
  • Discover how little most journals are read--in many cases not at all.
George Monbiot made similar points in the Guardian here.

It occurs to me that the situation makes a nonsense of any attempt to incorporate "impact" as a factor in evaluating research within the "Research Excellence Framework" (the notorious new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions). 

I'm really glad I am no longer in the rat-race--going to enormous lengths to produce article no-one will read. My stuff is not peer-reviewed pre-publication (although I get plenty of feedback afterwards) but it reaches a lot more people (more than the median annual usage of the Elsevier journals taken by UCL, every day). But the cartoon minutes of the panel DC attended (brilliant idea, incidentally) sum it up;

Of course there is a radical alternative--it addresses most of the problems, but doesn't actually publish anything...

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