Why PubCred is both easy to implement and better than real money [Guest post]

After posting about PubCreds I emailed the authors of the original article to invite a response because: 1) it’s only fair if you’re going to criticize someone’s idea to give them a chance to defend it; and 2) I think that the blogosphere is actually the ideal place to have these kinds of discussions because unlike journals it is actually designed to allow for… well… discussions. Below follows a guest post by Jeremy Fox & Owen Petchey. My thanks to Jeremy and Owen for taking the time to respond. Enjoy.

First, thanks to Ethan for a very thoughtful post on Pub Creds. This kind of constructive criticism is actually more welcome and valuable than unreserved praise. Thanks also to Ethan for inviting Owen and I to respond. Owen and I have chatted about our response, and I’ve taken the lead on actually writing it.

In his post, Ethan raised two major concerns about Pub Creds, who makes the rules, and how to uniquely identify authors and reviewers. These concerns motivated Ethan to suggest what he argues is a simpler and more flexible system, based on real money rather than Pub Creds. I’ll first address both of Ethan’s concerns, thereby alleviating the felt need to consider a real money system. I’ll then raise some concerns about an alternative system based on real money. At the end I’ll address some minor points Ethan raised in passing.

The issue of who makes the rules, while undoubtedly challenging, doesn’t need to be as challenging as Ethan suggests. I certainly don’t think we need to elect representatives who will meet in some kind of Pub Cred Constitutional Convention. The decision makers are the journal owners; they’re the ones who already control all other aspects of the operation of their journals, including editorial policy and pricing. For the ESA’s journals, the starting point for this kind of discussion is the Publications Committee, which makes recommendations to the Governing Board. (Indeed, the ESA Publications Committee will be discussing Pub Creds this week, at the suggestion of Ecological Monographs EiC Aaron Ellison). Similarly, the BES has a Publications Committee, as do most other scientific societies that sponsor journals. So while there’s undoubtedly a collective action problem here, it’s not the problem of getting thousands of individual scientists to act collectively, it’s a problem of getting a much smaller number of journal owners to act collectively. I would make the analogy to the Dryad data-sharing and archiving system that a number of scientific societies have just agreed to support—we didn’t need to have a “constitutional convention” to make that happen. If and when one or more leading journal owners decide that they want to seriously pursue Pub Creds, I imagine that they would charge their existing Publications Committee, or else a new ad hoc committee, to liase with other journal owners and build up a consensus among them as to how to proceed. That’s basically what happened with Dryad, as I understand it. This seems to me both a practical and appropriate way to proceed.

The technical issue of uniquely identifying authors and reviewers is one that’s been raised to Owen and I a few times. It never even occurred to us that this might be an issue, which is why it’s not mentioned in our paper. Indeed, it was such a non-issue for me that, when it was first raised, I continued to feel it was a non-issue but had trouble articulating why! Then yesterday Owen put his finger on it: it’s bank accounts that need unique identifiers, not people. This is true in the real-money banking system, and it’s true of the Pub Cred Bank as well. For instance, the Pub Cred Bank might work as follows:

1) Authors sign up for an account at the Pub Cred Bank, and receive a unique account number.
2) In order to submit an article, the submitting person must enter the Pub Cred Bank account number of all authors. At the same time, the submitting person indicates which authors will bear the cost of submission, including who will bear the cost of handling, and the reviews.
3) This information is passed to the Pub Cred Bank, which then emails all authors, and also requires that authors whose account will be debited click on a link to authorise this debit. One the PubCred Bank has sufficient authorisation for debits, a communication is sent to the journal submission web site and the ms submission is completed.
4) If the ms is rejected without review, Pub Creds are debited for handling. If it is reviewed, Pub Creds are debited according to the distribution of debits already authorised.
5) Reviewers will also need a Pub Cred account. Their unique account number will be submitted with reviews. If the handling editor agrees that the review is useful, they authorise credit to the reviewers account.
6)In fact, it’s not even a problem if individuals have multiple accounts at the Pub Cred Bank. After all, lots of people have multiple real-money accounts (checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards…) which they use to take in and pay out funds. Authors with multiple accounts would simply need to specify which of their accounts they wish to use to pay for a particular submission, and reviewers with multiple accounts would simply need to specify which of their accounts they wanted their Pub Creds deposited into.

Obviously, we’re skimming over security and other operational issues here, but surely those are soluble, “engineering”-type issues that don’t impact the worthiness (or otherwise) of the Pub Cred proposal itself.

I hope I’ve addressed Ethan’s major concerns about Pub Creds. So now I get to turn the tables and raise some concerns about his proposed “real money” alternative. ;-)  In this alternative system, authors pay a fee to submit, which is used to pay referees, and journals might be free to compete by setting their own prices for reviews and submissions. This idea has been proposed by various people in various versions. I first heard about it a few years ago when I was told that it had been proposed by Everett Fee at Limnology and Oceanography. I actually thought it was a great idea when I first heard it, and pitched it informally to the senior editors at Ecology Letters and Am Nat. The feedback I got was largely negative, and upon reflection both Owen and I agree that it’s not the way to go. The major concerns, in no particular order:

1. We respectfully disagree that currency exchange issues are inconsequential. If they are inconsequential, we assume Ethan would have no objection to using some currency other than USD as the standard in which submissions and reviews are priced? Owen says that if it’s all the same to Ethan, he’d prefer to price everything in pounds sterling. ;-) We also assume Ethan wouldn’t mind if the USD depreciates against the chosen Pub Cred currency, thereby increasing the real cost of his submissions? And that he wouldn’t mind paying transaction fees associated with currency conversions and transfers?

2. As Ethan notes, everyone starts off broke in Pub Cred land; the only way to earn Pub Creds is to do reviews. The same is emphatically NOT true of real money. Many authors have no research grants. While it’s true that these authors theoretically could pay for their submissions by doing a proportionate amount of reviewing, there’s no way to have a real-money overdraft system to cut some slack to authors who haven’t been asked to review in a while, or at all. And while forgoing page charges on one paper/year for authors who lack funds is one thing (many journals do), forgoing submission charges while still continuing to pay referees is a financial risk no journal would want to take, even for a limited number of submissions/author/year. Plus, here’s the flip side: if you have a grant, or are simply willing to spend some personal funds, you can buy your way out of having to review. Do we want a system where those of us who have grants and/or sufficiently large salaries can afford not to have to review, while those of us who don’t have grants are desperate to review because otherwise we can’t afford to submit anything?

3. One side effect of point #2 is that it isn’t true that all that matters is the ratio of submission costs to reviewer fees (i.e. that their absolute values don’t matter). For instance, someone who has a grant to pay part or all of their submission costs is going to need to be offered exorbitant amounts to be enticed to review. This isn’t just speculation on my part: I’ve had more than one person tell me that they’d need to be hundreds or even >$1000 USD to agree to do a review they otherwise wouldn’t do.

4. Many authors are going to be very reluctant to pay even a modest real money fee in order to submit a paper that could well be rejected, even if the paper is substantive and well-matched to the journal. That’s just the way it is, but that reluctance also has some rational foundation. Since even rejection without review costs the author a bit of money, but costs the journal little or nothing, journals will have a financial incentive to reject papers without review and pocket the portion of the submission fee that pays for this decision (and if you forbid journals from charging anything for rejection without review, you can’t afford to pay editors, and you’ve removed much of the incentive for authors to submit their papers to appropriate journals).

5. If real money is involved, publishers will see it as a revenue stream. Indeed, in conversations with a staff member at Wiley-Blackwell, it was made clear to Owen and I that publishers are going to want to know not just how to break even on the Pub Cred system, but how to make money off it. And Pub Creds doesn’t even involve real money! In a real money sytem, publishers WILL want their cut of submission fees. After all, they have to pay financial administration staff, there are overhead costs, they have shareholders to feed…This issue is actually the single biggest obstacle to implementing Pub Creds in practice. Making it a real money system just makes this hurdle a hundred times taller.

6. Is it REALLY a good idea to let journals compete on prices for reviews and submission fees in a real money system? Remember that everyone is not broke in “real money land”. The mind boggles at what publishers might try, and what effects it might have…

7. For the reasons outlined above, and just because real money is a really serious thing, I predict that it would be far harder to get a significant number of journals to agree to a real money system than to Pub Creds.

That’s as much as Owen and I had to say on the big issues Ethan raised. In response to some of Ethan’s minor comments:

Ethan indicated his impression that journals are asking for multiple rounds of review, which would indeed be a bad thing for all the reasons Ethan lists. But as editors, authors, and reviewers ourselves, Owen and I haven’t noticed this. In my experience it’s a very rare practice, especially since journals compete to have short times-to-decision. This leads many mss to be rejected without review, or else rejected for trivial reasons after one round of review, forcing what’s really a revision to be resubmitted as a new ms.

As to whether journals should be given flexibility with regard to credits or payments under the PubCred system, I don’t think so (with one specific exception to be noted). If flexibility were allowed, the system would immediately break down because journals would start offering reviewers large amounts of Pub Creds while charging authors few or no Pub Creds (or even paying authors to submit!) If allowing journals to compete on “price” for submissions and reviews really is a good idea (and I don’t think it is), it needs to be with real money. The only pricing flexibility that could be possibly be allowed under the Pub Cred system would be if journals wanted to charge X Pub Creds for a submission, in order to pay X-1 reviewers plus the editor (e.g., Science or Nature could charge 6 Pub Creds in order to pay for 5 reviewers plus the editor). I’ve never before thought about allowing journals to charge X Pub Creds in order to pay for X-1 reviews, but offhand I don’t see a huge obvious problem with it. This could open up an avenue for limited competition among journals. One could imagine a journal charging as little as 1 Pub Cred for submissions, and allowing its editors to make all decisions unaided by external reviews. I’ll need to think more about how this limited flexibility would work in practice, and whether it would create any perverse incentives or unwanted side effects.

Thanks again to Ethan for taking the time to offer his thoughts, and for allowing Owen and I the chance to respond. It’s always a pleasure when one’s ideas spark this kind of feedback.

About Ethan White

I'm a happily married dad and a scientist. I like computers, math, stats, and good scotch. I believe in the importance of open science and a free and open web.

Posted on August 3, 2010, in ecology, guest post, publishing, science. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’m really enjoying this exchange. Here’s my big question, which almost everyone with whom I’ve discussed this has immediately asked: How do you get all of these different publishing organizations – Wiley, Elsevier, ESA, Science, Nature, PLoS, AGU, The American Society of Naturalists, etc., etc., etc. – to agree to this, sit down, and co-ordinate?

  2. To jebyrnes:

    You’ve asked the $64,000 question (who are you talking to, BTW? Hardly any academics have raised this issue with Owen and I! Sounds to me like you’re talking to the right people…) My sense is that there may well be a divide between journals owned by scientific societies (which would like to implement PubCreds or an alternative system), and journals owned or part-owned by publishers (who would like to do whatever will make the most money).

    As an aside, note that I don’t think Nature and Science need to join, at least not in the first instance. Journals within ecology, or perhaps ecology & evolution, should be able to implement the system because they comprise a fairly closed field.

    I’d argue to for-profit journal owners as follows: joining PubCreds will make all your journals better. You’ll get better, faster reviews, which will allow your editors to make better, faster decisions, which will make your journals more popular with authors. This will make your journals a higher-quality product to sell in bundles to subscribing libraries. That’s the positive case, which has an implicit negative flip-side: If you don’t join PubCreds, you’ll struggle to attract reviewers, which will degrade your decision-making, causing authors to desert you, causing quality of your product will decline, causing libraries to stop subscribing.

    It’s early days and I have little sense of how compelling publishers will find that argument, especially without knowing how much PubCreds would cost to set up and run. If you or anyone has ideas on how to sell publishers on PubCreds, please let me know!

  3. Just a quick update on my post. Upon reflection, and following a conversation with someone from Wiley-Blackwell, I believe my point 5 (publishers would see a real-money PubCred system as a new revenue stream) isn’t well-put (and indeed is based in part on my misremembering earlier conversations). It would be more accurate to say that publishers are likely to view investment in any PubCred system (whether based on real or notional money) as just that–an investment. In order to invest, publishers will need to be convinced that that investment will lead to a worthwhile return, relative to the many other investments publishers could make. That return of course need not come directly from the PubCred system itself–for instance, it might come about because participating in the system makes the publisher’s journals better, and so more attractive to subscribers. Online ms handling systems are an example of this sort of investment.

  4. I’m amused – pretty much any academic I’ve talked to has immediately hit on the how-to-coordinate-journals question. I like the incentives you lay out, as you’re likely correct. I’m curious, how did the discussion go at ESA? Any takers?

  5. For a summary of how PubCreds went over at ESA, see the PubCreds blog: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/fix-peer-review/blog

  1. Pingback: The real problem with PubCred « Jabberwocky Ecology

  2. Pingback: No peer review crisis after all? | Jabberwocky Ecology

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