In a world of fast moving twitter feeds and ephemeral blogs, it is sometimes helpful to pause, look back, and take stock. Open Access week is a perfect time to do that. Like Toby A. Green, I wonder what is holding up efforts at a transition to more open scholarship. Sometimes, it feels like there might be an organized campaign against true Open Access (OA), one that is more organized and purposeful than the campaign for OA. It feels like that campaign works to control the language around OA. It may even be that there is even evidence of such a long-running campaign.

All the way back in 2007, Nature news published a short piece on the discussions between a group of commercial academic publishers and “PR’s pit bull” (Giles 2007). The publishers, including “Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society”, worried about  how “open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods”, were seeking advice from celebrity PR specialist Eric Dezenhall on how to deal with the emerging “free-information movement”.

Dezenhall reportedly “advised them to focus on simple messages, such as public access equals government censorship”, and “to equate traditional publishing models with peer review”. The advice centered on how to respond to messaging from advocates of “free access to information” and how to put them on the defensive.

The general outlines of the playbook should certainly sound familiar to those who follow the Open Access debate more than ten years later. The reaction to the recently announced Plan S, for example, involves lots of worry about academic freedom and about government interference into author choice. And there has been a concerted effort to equate traditional, commercial publishing models with peer-review, to the extent that people frequently talk about traditional peer-review, and how we can maintain it in a changing academic publishing landscape.

Traditional peer review is not traditional

Commercial publishers have indeed tried to associate the idea of commercial journals with peer review, and the idea of idea of pre-publication peer-review with tradition, and ultimately with quality. The reality is that “traditional” pre-publication peer-review is a relatively recent phenomenon. While reviewing has been going on for over 200 years in various ways and for various reasons, “The idea that any legitimate scientific journal ought to implement a formal referee system began to take hold in the decades following the Second World War” (Csiszar 2016).

Mostly for practical reasons related to reproduction and distribution of manuscript, the norm until at least the 1950s, and in many areas into the 1970s, was for journal editors to be the main reviewers, and often the only ones. In academic terms, this is very recent. It means that some of my main graduate supervisors reached academic maturity before this new system of external, pre-publication peer-review became generalized.

There is nothing traditional about traditional peer review, and certainly nothing static. Peer review has had a slow, fitful evolution. It took advantage of technological innovations such as typewriters and carbon paper initially to widen the circle of (necessarily) pre-publication reviewers beyond the journal editor. It then capitalized on the post-war availability of Xerox machines and affordable, reliable mail to build a more systematic review system. Email made that even easier and quicker. It is only natural to think that peer-review will continue to evolve.

With each innovation, the circle of reviewers has widened, bringing much needed and more diverse perspectives to the evaluation of academic work. We now have the technology to instantly make the circle of reviewers as wide as the readership of a paper. This means, of course, that the gatekeeping function that evolved as a byproduct of review, and which was monopolized for profit by commercial journals in the past 40 years, is no longer a viable ecological niche.

I think we should stop gracing the current system of pre-publication peer-review with the name “traditional”. It is a moment in time. It is a slice of a phylogeny of academic cultures. We should instead call it what it is: pre-publication peer-review. That will free us to think about the alternatives that the changing ecosystem opens up. “Traditional” is a scare word used by commercial publishers. That’s why I give it scare quotes.

We have to stop calling them pre-prints

And while I’m at it, I will point out that “pre-prints” are mostly not actually the stage of an academic publication before printing. The idea that a paper, in order to be a legitimate academic contribution must be “in print” in a journal with “traditional” pre-publication peer review is another shackle that we must break. If a contribution is posted somewhere, it is published. It is available for review, comment, and elaboration.

It may later appear on the web site of a journal, with a volume and issue number, and perhaps even page numbers. It may or may not be behind a paywall. The journal will claim that it is now “in print” and no longer a “preprint”. It makes it no more available (and sometimes much less), and no more of a contribution to the academic literature. It makes no difference in my life as an academic that it is now claimed as a publication by a journal. I most likely read it a long time ago when it was first posted. I have evaluated it. I may have commented on it. Perhaps I have already built on it in my own work.

The job of authors is to do their academic work to the best of their ability and to make it available to all. The reader’s job is to evaluate and build on the work. I don’t see where the publisher’s role fits in here. Certainly, it isn’t to print the contribution. We have to transcend this “preprint” concept. We have to make our work available and evaluate and use what others make available.

APC is not Open Access, and Open Access is not APC

The latest Orwellian linguistic innovation of the commercial publishers in their fight against true OA is their equating of author processing charges (APC) with OA. Worse, they now try to equate OA with APC. I won’t belabour this point. APC simply shifts the paywall from the reader to the author. Instead of limiting who reads, it limits who contributes, which in many ways is worse. The APC model is not in any way related to anything that can remotely be called OA, and OA is certainly not APC. Open means open. It doesn’t mean closed at one end, and it doesn’t mean closed at the other. In the fight for Open Access, words matter. Especially simple and seemingly innocuous words like open.


Csiszar A 2016. Peer review: troubled from the start, Nature 532:306-308.

Giles J 2007. PR’s ‘pit bull’ takes on open access, Nature 445.

One thought on “Open Access week reflection: Of traditional peer review, preprints, and how language matters in the fight for Open Access

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