Peer review and open access

Several different events have focused my attention recently on the relationship between open access initiatives and peer review.  First, a new task force on “digital futures” at Duke met for the first time yesterday, and it became clear very quickly that this group sees an open access initiative as its first task.  The group, which was appointed by the Provost and is predominantly made up of faculty, will evaluate various options and recommend a policy or policies to the Provost and the Academic Council.  The discussion at the task force’s first meeting made in very plain that open access was an important value to the group, but also that the apprehensions and misapprehensions about how open access is related to peer review and traditional promotion and tenure processes would be a major focus for conversation and education.

Next, I ran across this blog post by T. Scott Plutchak, the Director of the Health Sciences Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, about peer review and the NIH Public Access mandate.  I certainly do not agree with everything Plutchak says here.  He often seems to treat copyright as a publishers’ right rather than a right that vests with an author at the moment of creation, and that error creates a significant confusion when he mentions, and rejects, the argument that “the publisher has the right to refuse to grant the license.”  Of course, it is the author, as the original copyright holder, who grants a license to NIH as a condition of funding.  The publisher merely decides whether or not to accept an article and the transfer of a copyright that is subject to that prior license.  But Plutchak is quite right to raise the issue of peer-review and to note that the NIH clearly values such review and is gaining a benefit from a process that is managed by publishers.

That concern leads me to the article I really want to point to with this post, “Publish and Cherish with Non-proprietary Peer Review Systems” by Leo Waaijers.  Waaijers raises the same point that worries Plutchek and says quite bluntly, in the context of the multiple open access mandates from funding agencies that sponsor research in the European Community, that such mandates are unfair to a large number of authors because they are forced to negotiate copyrights with a variety of publishers, and most cannot publish in fully open access journals.  Most of the others must transfer copyright in order to gain the obvious advantage of the peer-review system managed by commercial publishers.  Waaijers’ solution to this unfairness is striking; it is simply that funding agencies should contract directly with publishers to create “non-proprietary” peer review systems.  By this he means systems that can accomplish independent peer review without insisting on a transfer of copyright; such systems would allow far more authors to make their work available directly in open access form without jeopardizing their promotion and tenure processes.

This suggestion clearly requires a lot of thought.  But two interesting things seem to stem from such a idea.  First, by separating peer-review from the process of proprietary publication, it would create an on-going role for some publishers even when and if their current business models become unsustainable.  Waaijers’ suggestion would ask existing publishers to submit proposals to the funding agencies to run these peer review systems, which would be independent of their other publication activities, thus taking advantage of developed expertise without continuing to tie that expertise to a specific model of scholarly communication.  Second, by examining the bids created in respond to a funder’s tender or request for proposals, the scholarly community would gain much better insight into what it actually costs to run a peer review system, which is, after all, the part of the current model of scholarly publication that is most important to scholarly authors and that we must take care to preserve in some form.