Does journal bundling compromise the journal peer review quality?
Motivation: Exploring the influence of “journal bundling” on the quality of the journal peer review system.
Problem statement: While information on this topic mainly focuses on journal price barriers (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here), I would like to talk about an equally important factor: peer review quality and journal answerability to their readers. (Sorry, I do not feel like referencing to them properly).
Findings: If we are to believe that competition increases the efficiency and overall quality of the offered products, which have to go through peer review in this context, then journal bundling weakens that competitive nature and thus the quality of the peer reviews.
“Well, glad to see someone knows how to use Google!”
So let us get to the point: Do journal publishers compromise the certification function of the most established scholarly communication model known to man by bundling their journals for subscription?
“Way to be dramatic!”
Well, it is a dramatic issue, it involves all those in the scientific community! But first let us define what this post is referring to when it is talking about “journal bundling”. I will take the description by the Information Access Alliance:
Under the kinds of bundling arrangements IAA believes are anticompetitive, libraries enter long-term, often confidential agreements with large publishers for an electronic subscription to many journals. Usually the bundle is sold with the requirement that a library maintain its historic “spend-level” for hard-copy subscriptions with the publisher. These arrangements have come to be known as the “Big Deal.”
The credibility of journal publishers as the only established executor of peer review (for publication) comes from the golden rule of competition: either you do a good job and get your deserved pay (recognition and paying subscribers) or you make way for others that will. It is not simply a competitive environment of objective third party quality filters, but a competitive environment for survival i.e. financial sustainability. Consider the following: whether research papers are worth sharing “publicly” is first decided by whether it fulfills the (minimum) quality requirements of the journal(s) the manuscript has been submitted to. The responsibility of that verification rests on the journal editors by way of the journal peer review system. The scientific community generally trusts that the journal editors do it to the best of their abilities, because it is their jobs on the line and their results are “open” to all to see and judge for themselves. If they do a bad job and publish research papers of lesser quality, few (if any at all) will read/subscribe to it and existing ones will leave eventually. At which point the journal will stop to matter, as a journal’s significance is determined by whether it is read and used i.e. cited i.e. the journal impact factor.
However, journal bundling weakens this answerability, as journals that one might not subscribe to normally, when it does not meet their requirements, are still being financed/ subscribed to. Bundling lets low(er) profile journals stay financially afloat even though they might not have otherwise, if subscribers were to qualitative assess them on their own merit, and thus the readers/subscribers might be getting shafted on these deals. Bundling of journals removes some of the pressure that journals should normally face when they do not attract subscribers on their own. So for this concept, I am afraid it may be greed taking on a form that, instead of luring paying subscribers by striving for the most appealing scientific works (which is usually correlated with scientific significance), uses sales tricks that bypasses the quality element. And that can never be good in the long run, neither for the journal publishers nor the readers.