I’m joining the editorial board of Axios Review. Here’s why.

In an old post, I noted that Molecular Ecology Managing Editor Tim Vines had founded an interesting new peer review service: Axios Review. Axios Review is an independent editorial board, unaffiliated with any journal. Its goal is to speed the peer review process for both authors and journals, by helping authors choose appropriate journals and so avoid rejections on the basis of novelty, importance, or “fit” to the journal.

Briefly, the way it works is that an author submits a ms to Axios Review with a ranked list of four target journals. Axios Review handles the ms as any journal would: the handling editor arranges for 2-3 external reviews, and passes them on to the author along with a decision letter. The difference here is that the decision letter includes comments on the suitability of the ms for each of the four target journals. Based on that information, the author can then ask Axios Review to forward the ms, the reviews, and the editor’s evaluation to one of the target journals. After that, the journal is of course free to do as they please—ignore the reviews from Axios Review entirely, send the ms out for additional reviews, accept or reject the ms on the sole basis of the Axios reviews, etc. The author is charged $250 for the service—but only if (and after) the ms is accepted by one of the target journals. See here for details.

The idea is that Axios Review can greatly speed the time from submission to publication in a selective journal, by helping authors avoid repeated rounds of rejection and resubmission. If they manage to do that for you—and only if they manage to do that—they charge you a fee for the service. On the other side, journals get pre-vetted mss, which should be attractive to them. Indeed, numerous journals (including leading evolutionary journals like Molecular Ecology, Genetics, and Heredity) have already indicated formally or informally that they welcome mss from Axios Review. And there’s nothing stopping anyone from using Axios Review to submit to other journals.

Axios Review is just getting off the ground and indeed hasn’t started formally advertising their services (they plan to do so in the new year). Their initial plan is to focus on evolutionary biology, which is why currently most of the members of the editorial board are evolutionary biologists. But ecologists have expressed sufficient interest in the service that they’re adding ecologists to the editorial board. Tim invited me to join the editorial board, and I agreed.

I decided to post my reasons for joining, in case they’re of interest to anyone thinking of using the Axios Review service, or who’s been invited to join the board themselves. And even if you’re not interested in Axios Review, you may be interested to read why I am. My reasons for joining Axios Review reflect how I see the changing landscape of scientific publishing and peer review, as well as my general professional decision-making process.

  • I know Tim Vines a bit, having corresponded with him on various things over the years. Tim is smart, thoughtful, and professional. I trust him.
  • Numerous really good people whom I know, or know of, and whom I greatly respect, have already joined the Axios editorial board or the advisory board. The value of the Axios Review service for authors and journals very much depends on the expertise and reputations of the editorial board members. If they’re good scientists and editors, and are seen by others to be good scientists and editors, authors are going to want to submit, and journals are going to take seriously the reviews provided by Axios Review rather than just binning them.
  • Axios Review is an intriguing and original idea. I’m curious to see “from the inside” how the idea develops.
  • Axios Review is cheap. Tim runs it on a shoestring, and he’s basically just trying to cover his costs, not get rich. (By the way, none of the fee goes to editors or reviewers. I’m not going to get paid by Axios Review.)
  • There’s no incentive for Axios Review editors to “reach” on behalf of authors. Axios Review doesn’t get any money if journals reject the mss it forwards, so they have no incentive to humor authors who want to submit some obviously-inappropriate ms to a highly-selective journal. Plus, journal editors will quickly start ignoring Axios Review if word gets around that Axios Review editors are just trying to talk up inferior mss in order to get author fees.
  • Conversely, it’s up to authors to decide what journals to approach, not the Axios Review editors. So there’s no way for Axios Review to try to make money by steering mss to unselective journals that the authors themselves don’t want to approach, just in order to charge authors $250.
  • The operational details of Axios Review are very simple. Editors and authors aren’t going to have to waste time futzing with over-engineered online ms handling systems.
  • So far Axios Review has handled very few mss, but I’m told that the few they’ve handled have been good mss that have been passed on to good journals. Which seems promising to me. Like most people, when I’m acting as an editor or reviewer I prefer to handle mss that are of good quality.
  • Axios Review is a narrowly-targeted reform of the existing peer review and publishing system. Their aim is to help the existing system better perform its existing functions, not change the functions the system performs. Axios Review doesn’t regard pre-publication peer review as immoral censorship, or an anachronism, or a totally ineffective waste of everyone’s time. They don’t want to do away with existing journals and the “filtering” that those journals provide. They don’t think it’s inappropriate to judge scientific work in part by how novel or important it is. And they don’t think that their main goal is of such overriding importance that other parts of the peer review and publishing ecosystem should be destroyed or radically altered in order to achieve that goal. Indeed, since they’re a service authors can choose to use or not, anyone who doesn’t like what they’re offering can simply ignore them. It’s not that I’m dead set against the numerous other, more radical peer review and publishing reforms out there. Heck, Axios Review is more narrowly targeted and less radical than one of my own proposed peer review reforms (PubCreds)! But Axios Review is the first peer review or publishing innovation I’ve encountered that’s sufficiently close to my own values, and sufficiently likely to succeed, that I’m willing to support it by participating in it.
  • It’s early days, so in the short term being on the Axios editorial board isn’t going to take much of my time, if any. Plus, Tim’s letting the editors set their own workloads, so joining Axios Review doesn’t prevent me from reviewing for other journals. Indeed, for now I plan to do just as much reviewing for other journals as I’ve done in the past.
  • I don’t know that joining the Axios Review editorial board will count for much in the eyes of my department head or others who either formally or informally evaluate me as a scientist. It’s not like being invited to join the editorial board of an established, leading journal like Ecology. But I’m not worried about that; it’s not why I joined Axios Review. Don’t get me wrong, even though I’m a tenured academic, I still have plenty of incentive (and desire!) for formal and informal recognition. Everybody likes to be recognized for their work (which is different than just “wanting to be recognized”) For me, joining Axios Review isn’t about getting some tangible or intangible benefit. Rather, as a tenured professor it’s my privilege to have job security and academic freedom, and it’s my duty to use that privilege well. Axios Review is a worthy experiment I can support, so why not support it?

In summary, in joining the Axios Review editorial board I’m giving them two of my most valuable possessions: my time, and my professional reputation. I wouldn’t give either if I didn’t think it was worth doing.

I’ll revisit my thinking as necessary if circumstances change. For instance, I’m unsure if there’d be a conflict of interest if I were to join the editorial board of a journal. Some of the Axios editorial board members are on journal editorial boards, so they may have advice which I would seek out if needs be. And I confess I’m unsure how difficult it will be to get people to review for Axios Review, and what sort of mss I’ll be asked to handle. But the only way to find out is to try it and see.

Would I use the Axios Review service myself? I couldn’t see using it for every paper I write, but I’m seriously considering using it. Like most established academics, I do try to match my mss to appropriate journals and I feel like I’m pretty good at it. But I freely admit my judgment isn’t infallible. Like most people, I’ve had some mss that went through several rounds of rejection, revision, and resubmission before eventually coming out in a much less-selective journal than the ones I’d originally targeted. If Axios Review can help prevent that from happening, then yeah, I’m interested.

Thanks very much to Tim for inviting me to join Axios Review. This is Tim’s baby and he’s putting a lot of time and effort into it. I’m flattered to have been asked to join the editorial board, I’m very curious to see how the experiment develops, and I hope that it succeeds.


Disclaimer: the views in this post are my own; I don’t speak for Axios Review or anyone involved with it. The decision to write the post was entirely mine as well. I ran the post by Tim Vines first, but any errors are entirely my responsibility.

29 thoughts on “I’m joining the editorial board of Axios Review. Here’s why.

    • Good question. Not being a member of Peerage of Science myself, I’m not in a great position to draw comparisons.

      Certainly there is some overlap in what they’re trying to do. In both cases, mss are getting peer reviews before being submitted to journals. And in both cases there are journals that have agreed to consider those reviews in some fashion.

      There are various differences. Peerage of Science charges journals for the service; Axios Review charges authors. Peerage of Science is for profit. I think Axios Review is best described as a non-profit. There are differences in how reviewers are chosen. Axios Review works like a traditional journal editorial board, and can seek reviews from anyone. Submissions to Peerage of Science are reviewed by whichever members of Peerage of Science choose to review them. And there are other differences (e.g., Peerage of Science has reviews of reviews, and they publish some of the reviews)

      I suppose I find Axios Review reassuringly familiar in its structure. And I know Tim Vines a bit and know or know of many of the people on the Axios editorial board; the same wasn’t really true for me at the time I was invited to join Peerage of Science. But I don’t have any strong opinion that one is “better” than the other, and indeed don’t see why they couldn’t coexist. In any case, it’s too early to say if either service is going to become popular enough to become an important part of the peer review and publishing ecosystem.

      • Just a reply to myself. I just checked out the editorial board. Looks like a really great list. I have to admit to being disappointed to find that not a single one of them works in a small pond.

      • “I have to admit to being disappointed to find that not a single one of them works in a small pond.”

        My microcosms are basically (very) small ponds. 🙂

  1. Let’s say you submit a paper at journal A. It gets reviewed and then rejected. Why not revise the manuscript according to reviewer comments from journal A, prepare a document responding to those comments, and then submit the revised manuscript + reviewer responses to journal B? Is the service that Axios provides much better (i.e., $250 better) than this approach?

    • Sure, you can do that! I do it all the time, so does everybody. And it might well be better than using Axios! Or, it might be worse, for instance if journal B rejects the ms, you revise again and submit to journal C, which rejects it, before journal D finally accepts it. If you’d used Axios, maybe you’d have realized that you’d be better off just submitting to journal D in the first place. Or maybe if you’d used Axios in the first place you’d have gotten accepted at journal A.

      In deciding whether or not to use Axios, authors have to decide if they think it will help them find a journal that’s likely a good match for their paper more quickly, and with higher odds of a successful match, than they could’ve managed on their own. Only time will tell how many authors make that choice.

      • Journals typically don’t like authors to submit their paper with reviews from previous submissions elsewhere, as a) they can’t get the identity of the anonymous referees from the authors and b) they have no assurance that the reviews haven’t been edited. Journal B therefore normally takes the safe route and starts the review process from scratch.

        By contrast, Axios is able to supply the original reviews and the reviewer identities, so the journal can make case-by-case decisions on whether it wants to get its own additional reviews or go back to the referees from the Axios round.

      • “Journals typically don’t like authors to submit their paper with reviews from previous submissions elsewhere, as a) they can’t get the identity of the anonymous referees from the authors and b) they have no assurance that the reviews haven’t been edited. Journal B therefore normally takes the safe route and starts the review process from scratch.”

        Just chiming in to agree with Tim here, and note the exception that proves this rule: journals that are part of a formal “review cascade”, and so have a mechanism to ensure that when they receive reviews from another journal higher in the cascade, those reviews include the reviewer identities and haven’t been edited.

        It occurs to me that Axios Review has rather similar goals to review cascades: to help authors and journals find their best “matches”, while reducing the burden on the peer review system. One difference of course would be that Axios reviews can in principle be taken to any journal, not just those in a cascade.

    • Never heard of the idea. My totally off the cuff reaction is that, as a form of peer review, it allows for far too much conflict of interest and far too much potential for authors to bias the outcome of the process via their choice of reviewer.

      But if it’s just viewed as a way of getting feedback on work in progress, rather than as a substitute for traditional peer review, sure. In that case, it’s no different than just “asking people you know to give you feedback”.

      • Exactly, but absolute transparency can work as a control mechanism, don’t you think? Also, authors are free to invite only their friends, but in this way they do not exploit the full potential of the system, which gives them the opportunity to invite the best experts and initiate an open dialogue with them, offering at the same time the opportunity to license their reviews and add them to their academic record (reviews receive a DOI). The point is, why do we need a board of editors to arrange the process? We can include the entire community and have everyone suggest appropriate reviewers.

      • Sorry, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on whether the initiative you describe is feasible, or even a good idea in principle.

        In my experience, very few people are likely to agree to read a draft ms on behalf of an author at the request of the author, unless they’re close friends of the author (and often not even then). Certainly I wouldn’t. I have no time, no incentive to do so, and no professional obligation to do so. My professional obligation is to contribute to traditional peer review, since I draw on the traditional peer review system when I submit to journals myself. I have no professional obligation to do personal favors for authors who’d like me to look over their draft mss. And sorry, but assigning my review a DOI doesn’t give me any reason to do reviews I otherwise wouldn’t do.

        Remember, the best experts are already deluged with requests to review from journals. Do you really think they’re going to agree to additional requests coming from authors themselves, authors whom they don’t know personally? And do you think many journals (especially selective ones) are going to trust non-anonymous reviews that the authors have arranged for themselves?

        I think the initiative you describe is based on assumptions about the behavior of scientists that are true only for a very small fraction of scientists. Sorry. The idea that lots of scientists are eager to participate in the process you describe reminds me a bit of claims that lots of scientists are eager to embrace post-publication peer review. Which they’re not, as evidenced by the fact that hardly anybody uses the commenting systems at Plos One and other journals, and the vast majority of papers draw no post-publication comments.

        Heck, I don’t even know if Axios Review is going to be able to get people to review for it, because it’s not affiliated with a journal. And at least with Axios, the review requests still come from an editor who’s an established, well-known scientist, and the reviews provided still get fed into the traditional peer review process in a well-defined way.

        And no, I don’t think transparency in and of itself works as a control mechanism. There’s a reason why, in many walks of life, we don’t allow individuals or companies to self-regulate, or to choose their own regulators.

  2. Fair enough! I just feel it is kind of sad that we agree to review anonymously for journal editors mainly because of their journal’s reputation, but we wouldn’t do the same directly and openly for colleagues receiving at the same time credit for our work. But I understand and share your doubts. We will see how the experiment goes. Thank you for the feedback and all best luck with axios.

  3. I’m curious how this will work out and I’m willing to support it for some time by acting as a reviewer (if you need one in population and community ecology). I didn’t find a way on their web page to register as a potential reviewer, so see this post as my offer to Axios.

    • Thank you Arne. You don’t need to register as a potential reviewer, there’s no online ms handling system. You’d just get an invitation to review by email, and you’d email your review back.

    • Hey Arne,

      Thanks very much for the offer – I suspect we’ll take you up on it sometime soon. We’ll also add a ‘register as a potential author/reviewer’ option on the website.


      • PS, as Jeremy notes, there’s no online manuscript handling system, but having some way for people to express interest in reviewing would be very useful…

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    • Thank you for your comments, Nancy. I agree that the issue you’re raising is a small one in this context. But it’s possible other readers might not think it’s a small issue, and so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reply at length.

      With respect, I’m comfortable with what I’ve written about Axios and don’t think it needs correcting. I’ve done a search and I can’t find where I’ve definitively said that Axios Review is non-profit. Here’s what I wrote above:

      Axios Review is cheap. Tim runs it on a shoestring, and he’s basically just trying to cover his costs, not get rich. (By the way, none of the fee goes to editors or reviewers. I’m not going to get paid by Axios Review.)

      I’m comfortable with this as jiving with what I wrote in a comment: “I think Axios Review is best described as a non-profit”. I freely admit that comment is a judgement call on my part, but it’s a judgement I stand behind (particularly because I hope readers would read that comment in the context of the original post). Axios Review is a shoestring operation. It’s my understanding that it’s just Tim Vines trying to make enough to keep the lights on and compensate himself modestly for his own time. And as he says in the Axios FAQ, he’d rather be a non-profit or a hybrid corporate structure, but isn’t because of legal and practical drawbacks:

      Independent peer review is a new idea, and, as with any exploration of a new territory, we need to be able to make quick decisions. The hands-down best corporate structure for doing that is a for-profit. Non-profits (at least here in British Columbia) involve a lot more people and a more complicated decision making process. There is a hybrid corporate structure here in BC called a Community Contribution Corporation, which has a cap on dividends and restrictions on asset sales, but retains the flexibility of a for-profit. The legislation is very new (from mid 2013) and still untested, but once the dust has settled this is an option we’ll very likely pursue. More broadly, we’re not here to make a big profit – our fee covers the basics and not a lot else.

      I certainly appreciate that some scientists are uncomfortable with their reviewing activities possibly contributing to the profits of a for-profit company. And in all honesty I am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or mislead anyone into reviewing for Axios. I was just trying to describe Axios fully and fairly, with a focus on how Axios actually runs rather than on the legal ins and outs. If any readers were confused, hopefully this comment clarifies matters.

      Yes, at the moment Axios is currently incorporated as a for-profit corporation. If that’s all someone needs to know in order to decide not to review for Axios, that’s their choice. Personally, I hope no one would make that choice. Tim Vines is one guy running a shoestring operation and trying to make ends meet. Speaking purely for myself, I see a pretty big ethical difference between that and, say, Springer, whatever the legalities of Axios Review’s incorporation in BC. I can totally understand someone being uncomfortable with the profit margins and market power of the big scientific publishers; I agree with everything Brian wrote here. But I confess I struggle to understand why someone would have the same discomfort (even to a much lesser degree) with Axios, and I hope no one does. Continuing to speak purely personally, I think if you decline to review for Axios because of their current incorporation even though you think Axios is otherwise a good idea, you’re making the best the enemy of the good by making it less likely that Axios will last long enough to change its incorporation in a way you would prefer. But ethical issues are hard, and it’s up to each of us to make our own decisions.

      • I thought I should answer my own question here. It sometimes seems that the phrase ‘for profit’ is used by academics as shorthand for an organization that is sociopathic, amoral and entirely motivated by greed. As a result, a ‘for profit’ is perceived to make excessive profits, often at the expense of its workers, the environment and society at large. By contrast, non-profits are caring, responsible, and motivated by the good of society.

        Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Both non-profits and for-profits have to make a decent sized operating margin, as this allows them to grow and deal with sudden emergencies. If either type of organization is always running at a loss, it won’t be around for long. Some non-profits make plenty of money (Oxford University Press’ margin is similar to that of for-profit publishers), and some scarcely seem to be acting in the public interest (e.g. the NFL is a non-profit and takes in millions of dollars per year). Some for-profits have a strong social conscience and work hard to enhance the lives of their workers and improve society around them (my bank, Vancity, is an excellent example).

        So, instead of using for-profit as a pejorative, or as an easy stereotype for an evil organization, I’d much rather people based their judgements on how a company conducts itself, and on whether they manage to do any good.

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  9. I happened to be reading this post exactly one year to the day after its original publication. How have things gone with Axios in your first year?

    • I’ve only handled one ms for Axios myself. The service is growing, and seems to be working well. The vast majority of the mss handled so far have been forwarded to, and accepted at, journals. The list of journals that have formally or informally indicated that they’re happy to consider mss from Axios is now quite long and includes many leading ecology and evolution journals (including Ecology Letters). I’ve just submitted a ms to Axios myself, because I felt I needed independent advice on where it would fit best.

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