A return for reviewers on open access

This interview came out in October of last year, but a reader only recently brought it to my attention: “A Pay-it-Forward Approach to Open Access Publishing: Interview with Neil Christensen of UC Press”. The conversation helps to introduce how the University of California Press is establishing a new open access journal, with a unique funding model:

Neil Christensen is helping pioneer a new model for open access (OA) publishing, by giving value back to the academic community in dollars. In his role as director of digital development at the University of California Press (UCP), Christensen, together with digital science publisher Dan Morgan and a team of colleagues at the press and University of California, are launching a new kind of OA journal. Like other OA journals, UCP’s will generate publication funding from article processing charges (APCs). Only instead of keeping profit earned from those APCs, UCP’s journal will “pay it forward” by giving editors and reviewers the opportunity to put their earnings towards their supporting institution’s OA initiatives or the article processing charges of future authors’ submissions to the journal.

Many other open access journals that levy publication fees routinely issue fee waivers for articles that are not funded by grants or institutional agreements, so the “pay it forward” model isn’t really novel in itself. Already the researchers with grants are paying to publish the works of people with no grants.

But empowering reviewers by giving them a voice in how funds will be allocated by the journal is a big step toward a more positive experience. As it is, reviewers for most journals receive no recognition for the work they’ve provided. Giving them a more formal role may help to build a community around this journal, improving the quality of review and encouraging a real interchange of ideas to develop. Recognizing the work that reviewers have done by making review open instead of anonymous would be an even more positive step.

One might object that UC Press could make the journal even less costly for authors by cutting out the allocation of funds for review and editing. But even including these allocations, the publication charge is very reasonable compared to competitors:

Take that three or four thousand dollar APC and then compare it to what we’re trying to roll out: an APC of $875, and out of that $875 we are going to pay $250 to the reviewers and editors, that leaves us with $625 of revenue we need on the publication side to pay the platform partners and transaction partners. If we can do all of that with $625 and we’re a small publisher, then you’ve got to wonder what the cost is for those publishers charging three and four thousand dollars who have greater scale than us and can do it for less money. There’s definitely a huge gap there.

It would be really great to see more university presses get into this game. That might provide a route for universities to divert money away from subscription journals directly into publishing the work of their own academics.

For that matter, why don’t universities simply pay for peer review?

You could say that a university has a conflict of interest if it effectively is reviewing the work of its own researchers. But that criticism can be addressed easily when the process of review is open. And if a researcher’s work has already been reviewed, there’s no reason why the work should not be cited in an institutional repository. In that system, the “journals” of the future can be collaborations of universities instead of publishers, and the work of a journal editor can be subsidized by the same funds that are currently paying for subscriptions.