An Oikos editor, and a former editor, are fixing the peer review system

Well, we’re fixing one key bit of it: the bit that ensures that there are sufficient willing referees to match the increasing flood of submissions. Scientists have strong incentives to write papers, but relatively weak incentives to review. We have to ‘publish or perish’, not ‘review or perish’. Professional norms oblige us to review when asked, but there’s increasing evidence that those norms are breaking down.

Hochberg et al. (2009 Ecol Lett) pointed out that this incentive structure creates a tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1968 Science). Reviewers are like an open-access resource, on which authors are free to draw at no cost to themselves. Unfortunately, while Hochberg et al. correctly diagnose the cause of the problem, the solutions they (and others) propose basically ignore the causes. For instance, here at Oikos we, like many journals, deal with the problem by simply sending out more review requests per ms than we used to, and we’re starting to reject more mss without review (a stopgap measure that’s likely to have perverse consequences…)

My colleague (and former Oikos editor) Owen Petchey and I have developed a solution that directly addresses the underlying cause of the problem: ‘privatize’ the reviewer commons. That is, create a set of rules (‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’, in Hardin’s famous phrase) that obliges authors to obey the ‘golden rule of reviewing’ and review 2-3 papers for every one they submit. One way to impose this obligation is via an artificial currency, which we call PubCreds. Authors could be charged, say, 3 PubCreds per submission, with the fee going to pay 2 reviewers and the handling editor 1 PubCred each.

I’m sure this brief description raises many questions–to which Owen and I have answers (seriously, we’ve been spending a lot of time working on this):

For our original article on PubCreds in the 2010 ESA Bulletin, go here.

For our PubCreds blog, where we further develop the idea and address many of the concerns that have been raised to us, go here.

For a petition you can sign if you would like to see PubCreds seriously considered by journal owners in ecology, go here.

For links to blogs with discussion of PubCreds, go here.

Finally, here is a video of my recent invited seminar on PubCreds at the 2011 Emerging Trends in Scholarly Publishing conference:

12 thoughts on “An Oikos editor, and a former editor, are fixing the peer review system

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  7. The idea seems sound enough — not sure how it’s gone in the intervening years–but I have to admit I’m irked by the (admittedly playful) throwing around of terms from the commons literature. What you propose sounds nothing at all (to me) like privatizing the system; instead it is regulating it through a centralized bureaucracy (the other “popular” answer to commons problems, and far closer to what I understand “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” to mean). Or arguably, it is a version of the nuanced suite of solutions identified, theorized and popularized chiefly by the late Elinor Ostrom.

    I might leave this be except for the fact that I view the Tragedy of the Commons as an idea with many of the trappings of a Zombie–it is not “wrong” and should not be wholly abandoned, but for goodness sake, Ostrom won a Nobel Prize (or technically, the Economics etc. etc. Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel Because We Couldn’t Get the Nobel People to Accept Economics Into Their Club) for showing the limitations and pernicious inexactness of Hardin’s formulation. Ostrom is and will continue to be widely cited, but I bet she hasn’t amassed anything like Hardin’s numbers, despite being in significant part a rebuttal of his formulation. I find it endlessly frustrating that ecologists continue to teach Hardin/TotC without realizing its profound weaknesses (Hardin’s specific formulation, and TotC as a specific case, not a general case) and without referring to (or being aware of!) the flood of literature refining and debating it. (One of my own mentors pointed to the specifically constructed, and therefore specific and contextual, nature of Hardin’s formulation by saying that it could just as easily have been called “The Tragedy of the Privately Owned Sheep”–you had a resource/ownership mismatch where the Commons were held in common, but the sheep that foraged on the Commons weren’t–owning the sheep in common would obviate the problems within the simple example of the model, though of course in real life further complexities–which are ignored in Hardin’s use of it anyway–would adhere).

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