It's no secret that academic publishers are able to cut expenses by getting free content, free review, and often free editorial expertise from the scientific community. Web hosting, copy editing, and printing costs remain, of course, so publishers cover these expenses by charging for the content - often by charging subscription and article access fees (directly or indirectly) to the very same researchers who provide their expertise for free. When some commercial publishers are generating impressive profits in spite of the bad economy, many researchers are rightfully perturbed. How should we, as a research community, respond?
Mike Taylor, writing at SV-POW! and Times Higher Education, argues that (among other strategies) scientists should refuse to review manuscripts submitted to non-open publications. To his credit, he has put his money where his mouth is (no surprise to those who know how solid Mike's character is). If done by enough people, this will surely have the desired effect of slowing down the cogs of the big non-open access journals (and making open access [OA] a more appealing alternative). But, what is the collateral damage? Is it worth it? Who would even receive the message?
I argue that, unless carefully constructed, such reviewing boycotts may never be noticed by some of the concerned parties. A typical journal editor will think "oh, Reviewer 1 refused to review. . .on to Reviewer 2." Even if the refusal to review is accompanied by a note explaining the reasoning behind the refusal, only the editor will ever see it (and potentially the publishing admins - who have little vested interest in changing the status quo).
Second, when the pool of qualified reviewers is small to begin with, this could have the consequence of letting some really bad stuff slip into publication. I've reviewed enough papers and read enough literature to know that unless I flag some manuscripts, nobody else will. (Richard has a similar sentiment in his comments at SV-POW!). Despite the schadenfreude of seeing non-OA journals become associated with increasingly substandard work, it would also mean that we're left with a mess to clean up (particularly in the case of "new" species). Profits are reported quarterly, but we have to deal with crummy taxonomy forever.
Third, the journals are not the ones hurt most directly by review boycotts; it is the authors. The journal will almost always find someone else to review the paper (with a delay as these reviewers are recruited); and if not, the manuscript will be returned for lack of qualified reviewers (with a delay as the paper is prepared for submission elsewhere). Rightly or wrongly, publications are a primary currency of academia. If getting that publication delayed means my friend or colleague doesn't get a job, or a grant, or tenure, I have hurt them, not just the profits of the journal.
There are some constructive alternatives, fortunately - given a choice, I would say #2 and #3 have the most utility and best balance intended and unintended consequences.
1) Refuse to review the paper, but fully explain why in a letter submitted directly and separately to the editor, journal, and authors. This way everyone gets the message - not just a select few.
2) Review the paper, but include a message with the review (perhaps both in the review text and in a direct letter to the authors) on the shame of the work being locked behind a paywall. Make the authors think twice about whether or not the intended audience will ever see the paper.
3) Submit your own work to open access journals, cite work in open access journals, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.
I sympathize with the sentiment that we academics shouldn't be propping up the questionable practices of some publishers, but we also need to avoid shooting ourselves (and our colleagues) in the foot as a result.
Update: Mike Taylor has posted a response to this post at SV-POW!