Nancy Rothwell

December 10, 2004

If the rules for academic review are to be changed, the agenda should be driven by those who do the work

One of the more rewarding aspects of academia is the spirit of cooperation, collaboration and mutual support. We pride ourselves on contributing to the academic enterprise of our discipline, often for no obvious reward. A "do-as-you-would-be-done-by" approach generally prevails. But true altruism has a downside in the academy just as in any other walk of life.

As we get busier, the pangs of guilt we experience about telling someone we are too busy to help, that we can't make a meeting or are unable to review a grant proposal become more frequent and necessary.

"The system" is creaking under the weight of the requests we all receive - particularly to peer review grants and papers. Funding bodies and journals have to spend ever-increasing amounts of time finding qualified reviewers willing to undertake often quite onerous tasks within tight deadlines.

A colleague of mine has an interesting approach. If he is eligible for grants from a funding body, he will review their proposals, and if he is likely to publish in a journal, he will comment on their manuscripts.

Otherwise the answer is no. Not a bad system at face value, but if everyone took that attitude our access to international peer review would be somewhat limited.

Funding bodies rely heavily on leading experts from overseas, and research doesn't always fall neatly into the remit of specific journals. Many of the experts we rely on for comment are in the commercial sector. They don't benefit directly from research grants and some do not publish their work, yet many give their time generously in supporting the academic community - without them we could face a serious problem.

Arguments about the value and nature of the peer-review system are rife - is it fair, is it efficient, is it appropriate? But in the end we all say it's the best that we have, albeit costly in time.

Now we face new challenges. Will the Freedom of Information Act, which comes into effect on January 1, challenge the anonymity of reviewers? Basically, I'd be in favour of completely open and transparent reviewing, but this is a concern in some competitive fields and for more junior referees.

Then there is the hot topic of "open-access publications" and the whole question of the commercial activities of publishing. Publishers make money out of scientific journals. Some even charge an "up-front" submission fee.

I wish I could say I have never paid this, but the pressures to publish in top journals are strong, so sometimes I reluctantly concede. On the other hand, our learned societies depend heavily on income from publications and many would face serious financial deficits without it.

Several recent reports have recommended open access to all scientific publications. An in-depth review by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee - noted for its forthright views on many issues - concludes: "The current system is not providing the access necessary for the progress of science." They didn't comment on humanities, but presumably the same principle applies. The committee recommends that authors pay for the costs of publication, and access then be free and open.

A US Congress Committee made a similar recommendation to the National Institutes of Health, and the Wellcome Trust suggests that open access is economically viable and sustainable. This would mean additional funding to pay for publishing, but the trust calculates that would add no more than 1 per cent to the costs of the research it funds. This is likely to have a significant effect on the academic arena. But it is not clear how researchers with limited access to external funding, particularly those in developing countries, would meet such charges.

What seems not to have been considered is the amount of time that academics spend reviewing papers, supposedly "for the good of their community" but in reality often for a profit-making organisation. If we were asked to conduct a review for the pharmaceutical industry, we could expect (and certainly get) a generous fee and travel expenses. Yet, as academics, we generally do not distinguish between the time we spend reviewing for non-profit, academically driven journals and the time we give for those that make considerable profits from both readers and authors. Maybe we should.

As usual, academia will be driven by external pressures. But maybe we could drive the agenda and set the "rules" for peer review, for recompense and for charging. In the end, we do the work that is funded and published, we do the peer review that determines what is funded and published - yet we seem to have had little voice in determining how this system works. Maybe we are all too busy writing and reviewing papers.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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