Re: The True Cost of the Essentials (Implementing Peer Review)

From: Arthur P. Smith <apsmith_at_APS.ORG>
Date: Tue, 18 Dec 2001 23:06:49 -0500

A lot to catch up on! I'm not sure when I'll get a chance! But one thing
I thought I ought to respond on, to clarify the problem a bit:

On Sun, 16 Dec 2001, Andrew Odlyzko wrote:
> [On shifting costs back to authors' institutions]
> Bringing back secretaries to do basic typesetting does not make sense, as
> almost all scholars find it easier to do this themselves. On the other hand,
> I feel there will be increasing pressure to provide expert Web design as well
> as editorial assistance to make articles easy to access and read. As papers are
> increasingly accessed in their electronic preprint formats (as is documented
> in various places, including my paper "The rapid evolution of scholarly
> communication," which is available, along with other papers, at
> <>), the incentive for
> scholars will be make those forms attractive for readers.

But the reality is that we have an enormous range of authors who send papers,
many of whom may have time and resources and capability to "make articles
easy to access and read", but many of whom do not. A look at the statistics
on articles we receive:

shows some of our journals have as little as 21% coming from US authors,
less than 35% from authors in even nominally English-speaking countries
(a good number of these come from India with rather variable quality of
presentation). 15-20% or more come from Asia (mostly China and Japan).
Even papers received from US institutions can vary quite widely
in consistency. I don't know comparable statistics for, but
you can see there quite a variety of presentation styles and skills
(a sample paper I just brought up had all the figures upside down,
for example) and the range of "raw materials" we receive seems to be
even wider than is on display there.

Now one of the things we try to do in copy-editing (along with bringing
everything to a common tagged format) is to bring the articles
we publish to some minimal "quality" level in the presentation,
English/physics terminological usage, etc. I can't say this is
done perfectly, but on the other hand I believe the consistency
in format and presentation in the final published articles goes
a long way to making sure that the relative merits of articles
to the readers can be judged primarily on the content, not on
enormous differences in presentation. As Andrew notes:

> [...] Already [...] scholars in
> some areas where getting a paper into a prestigioug conference was more
> important than publishing it (theoretical computer science being the
> prime example of that) were putting a lot of efforts into making their
> submissions look nice.

But is this a good thing for science? Should authors with the resources
to do so be "selling" their research with flashy presentations, while other
authors who invest their resources in actual research get ignored? We
need to level the playing field somewhere; doing so at the point of
publication through funds extracted from readers (or sponsors, no particular
bias on my part there) ensures that authors from less privileged
institutions are given equal billing, where the actual research
performed warrants it.

> In general, as we move towards a continuum of publication, it makes less
> and less sense to concentrate the copyediting and other costs at the
> formal publication stage. What I expect scholars will want is provision
> of "clearly readable research" (in Arthur's words) from the very beginning.
> It really is a "war for the eyeballs," in scholarly publishing as well as
> in more commercially-oriented areas, as my papers and those of Steve
> Lawrence demonstrage/

My argument is simply that going in that direction is a bad idea for
scholarly research, because it misdirects the resources and attention
of scholars into issues of presentation, when their real focus should
be the content of their scholarly research, and it penalizes researchers
who focus on the latter at the expense of the former, or who may
have no resources or skills to devote to it. Let a third party take
care of the presentation aspects; perhaps not a publisher doing peer review,
though peer review seems to me like an ideal way to judge whether
an article warrants "equal billing" with other good research, or not.

Now it can be argued how well we are actually doing in this area. Actual
changes to the text of a manuscript are often very minimal. However,
even steps such as getting the figures right-side up and positioning
them logically among the text, making sure acronyms and uncommon terms
are clearly spelled out somewhere, and of course our tagging efforts at
linking citations etc., can make a huge difference to the reader, so
time devoted to understanding the article is well-spent.

Is this really something we want to lose, in favor of all-out
"war for the eyeballs"? My imagination conjures up images of
physicists plastering their results on billboards in an escalating
war of presentation over content - but maybe there's an equilbrium
"detente" point that doesn't actually take that much effort on the
part of the author? The prospect does make me uncomfortable, but
as Andrew points out, in some areas it seems to be already happening.
What does experience teach us there? How is "science" actually
faring under these conditions? Has anybody analyzed this sort of thing?

More food for thought I hope. I've got a lot to read :-)

Received on Wed Dec 19 2001 - 11:02:46 GMT

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