Hal Daume at the NLP blog bemoans the fact that “there is too much to review and too much garbage among it” and wonders “whether it’s possible to cut down on the sheer volume of reviewing”.

He lists several possible approaches, most of which apply only to conference papers (which is appropriate since his field [and mine] is computer science, in which peer-reviewed conference proceedings constitute the bulk and much of the best of the archival literature). But to avoid parochialism, I’ll restrict attention to ideas that might apply as well to journal reviewing. His recommendations center on the idea of tiering the review process, allowing the editor to preemptively reject an article, or enlisting a full contingent of reviewers only if the article passes muster by a smaller cohort. Many journals already use these approaches, but they have the negative side-effect of reducing the scope of review for rejected papers, which may reduce the overall quality and fairness of the review process. (He doesn’t mention a different approach to tiering, which we might call “trickle-down reviewing”, in which a single review process is used for a set of journals with different publishing thresholds, so that papers rejected from a high prestige journal don’t generate requests for new reviews from a lower prestige journal that the authors resubmit to.)

There is an economic solution to the problem that bears consideration: Charge for submission. This would induce self-selection; authors would be loathe to submit unless they thought the paper had a fair chance of acceptance. Consider a conference or journal with a 25% acceptance rate that charged, say, $50 per submission. (The right amount may be different; I use this figure just as an example.) Authors who tended to write and submit average quality papers would be confronted with a cost of some $200 (in expectation) per published paper. If they wanted to reduce that cost, the expedient method would be to submit fewer papers and papers with higher average quality. The most plausible approach is to refrain from submitting the lowest quality papers, but other methods of improving quality would work as well. This has several positive effects: reduced reviewing load, higher average submission quality, less “salami-slicing“, and revenue generation to boot.

To avoid disenfranchisement of scholars with more limited means, fee waivers should be supplied in exigent circumstances, as they are for page, figure, and other publication charges by many journals. The application process for the fee waiver would be separated from the editorial process to prevent mercenary considerations from affecting editorial decisions.

Submission fees have a further benefit over publication fees in eliminating any economic incentive for lowering quality standards as a means for increasing revenue, as discussed in detail by McCabe and Snyder.

Submission fees could go a long way toward solving problems not only with reviewing but also journal financing and overpublication, a win-win-win situation, all without limiting entrée to publication.

3 Responses to “An economic solution to reviewing load”

  1. Fernando Pereira Says:

    I don’t think this adds up. Consider a typical academic CS research group with one professor and a few graduate students. As is typical, as a conference deadline approaches, they have several papers in the works, say four, in different states of completion; maybe one is in very good shape, two in fair shape, and the other in poor shape (these are again typical numbers in my experience). If just one paper is accepted, the professor and one student attend the conference, at a typical cost of $4000 for travel, accomodation, and conference registration. If three papers are accepted, maybe the professor and three students attend, at a total cost of $8000. Compared with those costs, the difference between $50 and $200 is utterly trivial; just a couple of slightly better meals, or a cab to the airport instead of the shuttle, would make the difference. The only way this could work would be to have submission charges that are significant relative to the other costs of paper creation and presentation. But if the charges were that high for a given venue, then 1) other venues would undercut it, and 2) rejections would lead to open warfare with authors claiming they were swindled of their fees by inappropriate rejections. The lack of incentive alignment between getting as much from submission fees as possible and doing as little in reviewing as possible would be very destructive of already fragile institutions.

  2. Thomas Schiex Says:

    Yes, I do think we need to introduce some viscosity in submission as the energy required for reviewing is such that it hampers reviewing quality and lowers publication quality. It also takes too much time from reviewers.

    I must say that I don’t like “cash-based” restriction mechanisms. Even if special waivers are enforced, there are side-effects (threshold effects, imperfect waiving design…) that may prevent somebody from publishing for financial reasons although the work is good.

    One approach to this problem would be to create a virtual money (easy to manage thanks to IT and the web). Each scientist that wants to publish should subscribe to a central worlwide website. He will get an initial fund of (let say) 30 points. Each submission costs 6 points. If the paper is accepted, you get 3 points back. If it is rejected you get nothing. If you don’t like these numbers for some reason, they can be changed.

    Every year, you may get a donation that brings your account to 12 points (if lower) from the web site. A paper with multiple authors requires payment by all authors, with a (possibly non linear) discount based on the # of authors.

    The number one difficulty is to make this “virtual money” acceptable by major journals and conferences. But the scheme is otherwise simple to implement in terms of required IT. The name/affiliation appearing on the paper published would be directly taken form the central website, preventing “fake accounts”.

    There is also no way in the scheme presented to make this virtual money “real” (contrarily to second life money).

  3. Fernando Pereira Says:

    @Thomas Schiex: Variants of your idea have been floating around the computer science community for decades; the most common variant has authors earn points by reviewing, rather than than having their accounts topped up yearly. However, in my opinion the main problems in computer science are (1) peak reviewing load caused by conference deadlines, and (2) lack of reviewing history for submission across different conferences and years of the same conference, leading to much redundant reviewing. Stuart’s and your proposal try to manage total load, which in my view is much less of an issue. Indeed, a major CS conference, VLDB, is in the process of switching to a year-round, fast-publishing electronic journal submission format, with the annual conference being just the aggregation of papers accepted the previous year, in an effort to correct the problems I mentioned.