The real problem with PubCred

I really appreciated Jeremy and Owen’s follow up to my original post about PubCred. They have clearly thought a lot about the feasibility of implementing their system and while I still don’t agree that it’s quite as straightforward as they propose1 I am will to concede that they would get the details figured out pretty quickly. So, that leaves three questions: 1) Who should decide the details of the system? 2) Is there a set of details that makes this system preferable to simply using money?2 and 3) In the context of the answers to 1 and 2, is this a good idea?

I proposed that since this is intended to transform the process  of scientific publishing that we should put together a council of scientists (or academics more broadly) to collectively make decisions that would be best for science. In response Fox and Petchey suggest that

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.

It was upon reading this sentence that it finally clicked for me why I think that the PubCred proposal is in fact inherently bad for the scientific process. It codifies the idea that for-profit journals have a right to have the majority of their labor done for free.

In order to understand the validity if this point I need to present a brief version of a post that I keep meaning to write titled “There’s no such thing as a free lunch; unless of course you’re a for-profit scientific journal.”

Scientific journals originally started out as a central location for scientists to share ideas with one another, replacing the practice of sharing ideas via personal letters between individuals. For most of their history, scientific journals persisted as collective efforts intended to identify good science, improve it and distribute it as broadly as possible. Journals were typically run by scientific societies and were effectively non-profit in nature3. In this context it made perfect sense for academics to donate their time to journals as reviewers and editors because the ultimate goal of the journals was to benefit science by maximizing the quality of science and the extent of it’s distribution.

In recent years the prevalence of for-profit journals has increased dramatically, and even many society journals are increasingly being managed by the big for-profit publishing companies. I have absolutely no objection this. I think that scientific publishing has benefited substantially from the infusion of ideas and resources provided by the market4. However, the fact that a for-profit company still gets most of its work done by volunteers seems a little strange, and it becomes a little absurd when you realize that they people who are doing all of the work for free are then the ones paying for the product. Since the for-profit journals need to make a profit and are motivated to maximize profit rather than breadth of distribution, this makes for-profit journals substantially more expensive (e.g., Ecology costs a library just over $2/article whereas Oecologia costs over $20/article5), and therefore reduces the availability of science as the cost of journals increases (and library budgets stay the same or go down). Again, I don’t object to for-profit journals, but I do object to the idea that I am somehow morally obligated to work for free so that a corporation can make a profit6.

And this is exactly what PubCred does. It codifies the idea that it is my responsibility to work, for free, for a for-profit corporation7. It obligates me to donate time to a group whose goal is to maximize profits, not to maximize the distribution of scientific results. And this seems to me to be a really bad idea. The fact that we as scientists drive the peer review process is one of the last controls we have over the distribution of scientific results, and I for one am not ready to simply hand that over to the journal owners as suggested by Fox and Petchey. In contrast, a monetarily based system allows the market to actually work. If I want to donate my time and effort to a non-profit journal, in the same way that I donate time and money to charities, then I can. If a for-profit corporation wants me to work for them in order to generate profit, then they can actually pay me.

1You can’t allow separate accounts that aren’t linked to one another via a unique author ID if you’re going to allow for accounts to carry small negative balances. Otherwise it’s easy to cheat by opening up multiple accounts.

2I’m going to skip over this one for the time being since I think my answer to points 1 and 3 pretty much puts me firmly against the currently proposed system, but I might come back in a separate post and address some of the arguments made by Fox and Petchey that I find less than convincing.

3There are of course exceptions. Nature being notable among these.

4The single best example of this that I can think of is the substantial increase in the speed of review and publication among ecology journals that I think is largely attributable to the creation of Ecology Letters.


6This issue of for-profit journals charging high prices to the same individuals who are doing their labor for them for free is a serious issue regardless of Pubcred. At some point I’ll try to write a broader post on this point with more links to relevant content.

7Which is why I’m completely surprised by comments such as these that indicate that the for-profit journals aren’t jumping all over this idea, but I guess that this is probably just an indication of how entitled they feel to their free labor.

7 Comments on “The real problem with PubCred

  1. Thanks for your further thoughts Ethan, and for your passion about these issues. I thought I’d briefly summarize the response I’ve already sent to you, for the benefit of interested readers.

    I certainly agree that PubCreds creates an incentive to review for participating for-profit journals. But I do feel it’s important to be precise; it’s an incentive, not an obligation (either an obligation imposed on any individual, or a “collective obligation” imposed on the field as a whole). Individuals who don’t want to review for for-profit journals are free to do so under the PubCred system. Indeed, if enough people refuse to review for for-profit journals, those journals will collapse and society journals will move in to fill the gap, whether or not a PubCred system is in place.

    My own view is that the issues Ethan raises surrounding for-profit journals, while undoubtedly important, are independent of whether PubCreds is a good idea or not. In particular, I don’t think implementation of PubCreds would make it meaningfully harder (or easier) to address the undoubtedly-challenging issues surrounding for-profit journals. But this seems to be a point on which Ethan and I will need to agree to disagree.

  2. As far as I can tell, PubCreds is committing the population of reviewers to providing any participating for-profit journal with free reviewing into perpetuity. Since the number of reviews must match up with the number of submissions (and therefore, appropriately accounting for the probability of acceptance, the number of published papers) as long as for-profit journals publish papers (which, again, I support) this clearly results in a collective obligation to review for for-profit journals.

    PubCreds does this because of a philosophy that scientists should be obligated to contribute sufficient reviewing duties to compensate for the work that must be done to review their submitted manuscripts. My point in this post is that this collective obligation should only exist in the case where we are working together toward a common good. Those whose goal is to profit financially by providing services that support this common good should not be guaranteed free labor. This definitely seems to be a fundamental point of disagreement between Jeremy and I.

    To be clear, I do not object to reviewing for for-profit journals (just check out the relevant portion of my CV). I object to the idea that we as scientists owe it to these companies to review for them.

  3. Pardon a naive question, but if for-profit journals had to pay for reviews, wouldn’t that make their journals even more expensive for libraries to subscribe to?

  4. That’s a good question Theo. I don’t know much about economics, but my vague recollection from some class years ago is that supply and demand set the price, which in combination with the costs results in the profit. So yes, journals could certainly try to pass the cost along to the libraries, but if the market was actually working in this system then instead it should just reduce the profit margins (since the increase in costs won’t actually reduce supply, at least in the short run). That being said many for-profit journal publishers have been, IMHO, trying to prevent the market from operating through bundling journals together in packages (basically building monopolies and then using them to control the market), but that’s a story for another day.

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

  6. Pingback: An excoriation of for-profit academic publishers « Jabberwocky Ecology

  7. Pingback: Why I will no longer review for your journal « Jabberwocky Ecology | Weecology's Blog

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