Peer reviewing as a hidden subsidy

Even though I left academia recently, I try to keep in touch with the academic community and keep up with academic publications in the field. Because of this, I still accept most requests from journal editors to review their contributions. What annoys me however, is the fact that I do not have access to such journals anymore. My current employer has subscriptions on some journals, but definitely not on all the ones I am interested in. Considering the subscription fees of most journals I can’t blame them.

Today I read an interesting article in the Times Higher Education on the costs of publishing and… the actual costs of peer reviewing. It does make you wonder about the current system of peer reviewing, especially if you don’t have access to the articles you review. I used to agree with the observation of the THE that the advancement of the academy’s collective body of knowledge was reward enough for the time and effort put into peer review and therefore academics needn’t get paid for doing this. But now I see what we are missing out on, I am not so sure anymore:

But a new report has attempted to quantify in cash terms exactly what peer reviewers are missing out on. It puts the worldwide unpaid cost of peer review at £1.9 billion a year, and estimates that the UK is among the most altruistic of nations, racking up the equivalent in unpaid time of £165 million a year.

The report says there would be a “significant transfer” of funds to academics if peer reviewers were paid. But such a move would drive up journal prices, with the estimated “breakeven price” of a major discipline journal jumping 43 per cent, leaving libraries with a bigger bill.

My first reaction to this was that there must be other possibilities with all the new technologies available. And there are. The report also shows that a move to electronic-only publishing would bring a fall of about £1 billion (12 per cent) in global costs. A system of author-pays open access publishing could add another saving of £556 million. I don’t have to get paid to review articles. But some changes to the system would be appreciated.

Market share and competition

In the Dutch weekly journal ESB (Economic and Statistical Reports), economists from the universities of Groningen and Rotterdam presented an interesting article. Their starting assumption is that high student evaluations will have a positive effect on the market share of universities. After all, if a programme in a particular university is highly ranked by students, more students will chose this particular university to attend that programme.

The authors collected six year of student evaluations where students rate their programmes on a scale of 1-10  (as published annually in the Dutch weekly magazine Elsevier). Market share for each programme/university combination was calculated by dividing the number of students in programme X in university Y by all students in the Netherlands in programme X. When the evaluation of the programme is compared with the market share, we get the following graph:


On the basis of this finding (and the results of a simulation that they run), they present some interesting conclusions. I won’t go in details, but one of them is that there is no clear relation between evaluation and market share. Hence, students have other criteria than quality in the choice of where they will attend university (especially location, and in particular the distance to their place of residence).

In their discussion, the authors indicate that this shows that competition on the basis of quality is not really taking place in the Netherlands. One reaction could be that the government should enable universities to compete on the basis of price. In other words, universities should be able to set their own tuition fees. This is currently not allowed for Dutch and EU students and the government decided last week that this will not be possible in the near future.

I could pose an alternative hypothesis on the interpretation of the results. The results show that students don’t take quality of education into account in their decision-making process. This could indicate that students don’t purchase a service (a high quality education), but a product (a degree). Universities should therefore emphasise the quality of their degrees, not the quality of their education. If the value of the degree differs per university (reflected in the opportunities to enter the labour market in higher positions or on a higher remuneration), the students will take this into account. This then would mean that universities are better of improving their position in rankings, attracting more prestigious scholars (like Nobel laureates) and increase their budget for marketing. This will bring them a in a better competitive position. On the other hand… maybe economics doesn’t provide answers for everything…

Erjen van Nierop, Peter Verhoef, Philip Hans Franses. Studie Evaluaties en marktaandelen van universiteiten (subscription required). Economisch Statistische Berichten, 4 April 2008.

The Trisakti Tragedy: 10 years later

It’s been exactly ten years today since the Trisakti tragedy took place in Indonesia and the last  remaining foundations of Suharto’s 30 year rule started crumbling down. During the month of May in 1998, student demonstrations against Suharto were organised everywhere and several incidents occurred on campuses all over the Indonesian archipelago. But the events on May 12 at Trisakti university shocked many and directly led to the fall of Suharto nine days later.

On Tuesday May 12, at around 10.30, thousands of students gathered for a peaceful demonstration on the campus of Trisakti University, located between the airport and downtown Jakarta. On campus, a free speech forum was organised where students, academics and other speakers voiced their opinions. Students were allowed to demonstrate on campus but Suharto had explicitly prohibited all public demonstrations. Nevertheless, the students left campus and marched into the direction of the parliament at 1.30 in the afternoon.

trisaktiAlthough most students demonstrated peacefully, the rally turned violent later in the afternoon. The students were blocking the traffic at one of the main arteries of Jakarta. The security forces stopped the thousands of students while they were on their way to the Parliament building. For hours there was a stand off between the students on the one hand and the police and security forces on the other. Somewhere around 5 PM, the students negotiated a solution. They agreed that one row of students would back off for every row of police that did the same. But then suddenly the security forces started shooting with rubber and live bullets to the students who were running back to the campus grounds. At the end of the day, four students lost their lives. Elang Mulya, Hafidin Royan, Hendriawan Sie and Hery Hartanto later became ‘the heroes of the reformation’.

The tragedy remains surrounded by mysteries. There has been talk about infiltrators of the security forces, disguised as Trisakti alumni, who provoked the peaceful demonstrators. Rubber bullets were used by the security forces, but it remains unclear where the live ammunition came from. The fact that the air was filled with teargas only added to the confusion. The Trisakti Tragedy was followed by one of the cruelest events in Indonesian history. In the two days after the events at Trisakti University, thousands were killed in the May 1998 riots. The mysteries surrounding these events and the involvement of government forces also remain unsolved.

Many investigations have been conducted into the Trisakti tragedy and the events afterwards, but many questions remain. Calls upon the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and on the Indonesian judiciary to reopen the investigations have until now remained unanswered. Maybe the tenth anniversary of these events would be a good occasion to review this decision…