28 July 2011

Peer review

The UK's Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology has published its report on peer review, with an interesting section on costs.  They quote an estimate from JISC that peer review costs the UK Higher Education sector "between £110 million and £165 million per year for peer review and up to £30 million per year for the work done by editors and editorial boards".  So what happens next, up pops a man from Elsevier to claim that publishers too have invested hugely in improving peer review - by installing journal management systems.  He suggests that,
Overall, one of the biggest investments for everyone in the publishing industry in the last decade or so has been migration to some of the electronic platforms. Across the industry, our estimate is that somewhere in the order of £2 billion of investment has been made. That includes the technologies at the back end to publish the materials as well. The technology has included submission systems, electronic editorial systems, peer review support systems, tracking systems and systems that enable editors to find reviewers.
Precisely how this "improves" actual peer review is not explained, since the quality of review depends entirely upon the reviewers and not on whatever technology might be employed to manage the process. New technology was introduced by publishers to improve efficiency and reduce costs, not to improve peer review and, in any event, from the table provided by Elsevier showing a total of more than £2,130,000,000 in investment, industry-wide, a mere £70,000,000 is attributable to "Author submission & editorial systems" in which the peer review process would be swallowed up by everything else and £1,500,000,000 is spent on electronic publishing systems.

As usual,  the publisher "doth protest too much methinks".  They know they get away with murder in the scholarly publishing business - the only business to acquire its raw materials free of charge and then to have a significant proportion of its labour costs delivered freely.  The newspapers are gradually coming to understand the significance of the Internet and its impact on their business models, but the scholarly publishers, supported by government and university heads, will resist to the end.

Typical of this support, the report concludes,
..we consider that there should be an external regulator overseeing research integrity. We recommend that the Government set out proposals on the scope and powers of such a regulator and consult with the research community and other relevant parties to develop them.
It is also recommended that all academic institutions should have someone responsible for 'research integrity' - in other words, more costs to the Higher Education institutions.  Elsevier must be giggling all the way to the bank.