University Administration Building, Notre Dame (Inside view)

Recently read: Paying for peer review; Nobel laureates on Raif Badawi; & dealing with retractions

In this week’s collection of articles, I would like to invite you to reflect on the following questions:

  • Should peer-reviewers be compensated for their efforts? Should authors pay for this compensation? There’s a new Open Access journal that promises to do just that.
  • What is the role of academics in repressive regimes? A group of 18 Nobel laureates believes that academics in Saudi Arabia should either speak out or face marginalisation.
  • When a paper is retracted, should funding agencies reclaim any public funds that were associated with said paper? Leonid Schneider argues that such a policy would be beneficial for the public, universities and science.

New open-access journal promises to pay peer reviewers

According to an article in the Scholarly Kitchen, the University of California Press are launching a new Open Access (OA) mega-journal which will focus on the life and biomedical sciences, ecology and environmental science, and the social and behavioral sciences. A distinctive feature of the new journal, Collabra, is that a part of the Article Processing Charges (APCs, reportedly $875) will be set aside as a reward for peer-reviewers. Here’s how Alison Mudditt, the University of Caiffornia Press director, describes the plan:

The pay-forward component of the model sets Collabra apart. Our goal here is to create a truly self-sustaining model that supports more OA publishing, especially in fields without the kind of research grants that have traditionally funded APCs. A portion of every APC goes into a central fund for editors and reviewers. At intervals throughout the year, editors and reviewers can elect to pay forward to the Collabra APC Waiver Fund, pay forward to an institutional/library OA fund, or receive a cash payment. Collabra provides the research community a meaningful choice about where to invest the value generated through peer review labor.

More to read: Additional information on the new journal has been published by Science. The question of whether to pay peer reviewers had been debated in the past (e.g., 1, 2) but there seems to be no consensus on the topic. An older (2008) article from the Times Higher Education suggested that the value of unpaid peer-review is in the region of £1.9bn.

Nobel laureates take a stand for freedom of expression

Earlier this week, the Independent published a letter by 18 Nobel laureates, which is addressed at academics at the King Abdulah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. In the letter, the laureates tactfully remind their colleagues that academic collaboration and the goodwill of the scholarly community are requisite to the university’s plans to become “a leading institution for education and research“. This is followed by a tactfully expressed, but very clear, message that outrages against freedom of expression, such as the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, will doubtless lead to the marginalisation of academics affiliated with Saudi universities:

We write out of concern that the fabric of international cooperation may be torn apart by dismay at the severe restrictions on freedom of thought and expression still being applied to Saudi Arabian society. […] We are confident that influential voices in KAUST will be heard arguing for the freedom to dissent, without which no institution of higher learning can be viable. […] We are aware that change comes by degrees, but we write at this time since it seems, a mere five years into KAUST’s history, to be a crucial time for KAUST. The undersigned friends of KAUST will be there to support you in asserting the values of freedom that we are all agreed are essential to the future of a University in this twenty first century, and that will determine the success of the extraordinary venture which you lead.

The message seems to be very simple: if KAUST wants to be regarded as a credible institution of higher education globally, the academics working there need to live up to their responsibilities as intellectuals who can influence decision making. It is unclear what impact such a move will have on the Saudi ruling class, who seem keen to import into the kingdom the prestige associated with high-profile research, while keeping out some of the values associated with higher education, such as a commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of belief, and freedom of association.

Should universities refund grant money that went into retracted articles?

In an article recently published in Retraction Watch, Leonid Schneider outlines a proposal to make universities financially accountable for the research published by scientists they employ. Schneider notes that currently it is hard for funding agencies to reclaim funds that were used to finance fraudulent research, and suggests that universities, who “readily claim their chunk of fame and cash showers when their labs publish a high-impact paper” should also be held responsible when things go wrong. Crucially, he proposes that whenever a grant application is supported by publications that are later found to be fraudulent, then the university of the grant-seeker should return any funds received to the funding agency. Here are some benefits of this proposal, in the Schneider’s words:

The benefits of a refund clause are many. Primarily, the repaid grant money will become again available to the more honest applicants, those who were left empty-handed back in the previous rounds. This is particularly important in today’s climate of austerity and budget cuts. But the side effects will be even more substantial. What faculty or board of directors will still support and protect a PI [Primary Investigator] who caused their (usually notoriously cash-strapped) institutions to face such a hefty fine? […] PIs will be more mindful which kind of research attitude they encourage in their labs. Nowadays, some office-bound PIs hardly know or actually want to know how exactly the experimental results were obtained, as long as they fit the PI’s predictions and expectations. Thus, even a retraction can be shrugged off with a hint to an allegedly criminally-minded PhD student or postdoc, a snake at one’s honest bosom. Yet it will not be that simple when your employer comes after your tenure and your lab, waving a grant agency’s spectacular bill.

Schneider’s comments are indicative of increasing frustration with the embarrassing number of papers that are found to be fraudulent, and a widespread belief that not enough is being done to address the problem. Whether such a proposal would have any lasting effects to the research culture is a matter of opinion, though. It is equally possible that the only effect of such proposal might be a requirement that universities purchase insurance policies, the expense for which will be borne by all researchers.


Featured image by Dan Dzurisin @ Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND

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