The persistence of closed access journals is a collective action problem, specifically a coordination problem. As economist Ted Bergstrom shows in his parable of the Anarchists’ Annual Meeting (see p.10), the main barrier to transitioning to an open access publishing system is the inability of scholars in particular fields to agree together to divest from closed venues and redirect their energy (and prestige) to open ones.

The most obvious way to solve a coordination problem is to create a mechanism for coordinating. Over the years, academics have tried to achieve at least the first half of the move - agreeing not to contribute to the closed venues any longer - by creating boycotts. Perhaps the most famous is the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier, inspired by English mathematician Timothy Gowers. This boycott has the benefit of being targeted and easy to understand, but it’s nearly a decade old and, well, Elsevier seems to be doing just fine. Also, for many junior academics, boycotting Elsevier could be a severely career-limiting move.

With an eye to these issues (effectiveness and the vulnerability of pre-tenure folks), a group of junior faculty have created a more complex set of pledges under the Free Our Knowledge banner. These pledges add a Kickstarter-style triggering element: signers of the pledge are not bound to follow through unless/until a critical mass of their peers in a given discipline also commit. This model will be attractive for the utilitarians out there who don’t want to make a change unless it will tangibly transform the system. But what if you are anxious to walk the walk right away, AND to do something that could make a difference, but without the same career risk as boycotting as an author?

I think that’s where this new petition, No free view? No review! fits in. Boycotting only the review function seems like it might be a nice way for folks to thread the needle of divesting from closed venues without as much career risk as an author boycott or a total boycott. To the extent that scholars feel like reviewing is high cost and low reward - it takes a lot of time but doesn’t really carry much cachet compared to authoring - this could be a good way to drain resources from closed venues without a stiff penalty to faculty. Scholars don’t have nearly as much to lose from this boycott, but have a lot to gain in terms of free time and living their principles. I particularly like this bit from the FAQ:

How will boycotting reviews make a difference? It is true that unethical publishers will probably always be able to find reviewers, especially for the most prestigious venues. Nevertheless, we believe that good peer review is a vital part of the scientific process. Good peer review provides valuable and timely feedback to authors and facilitates the publication of good research. Hence, reducing the pool of reviewers for closed-access venues can make them less attractive and encourage authors to switch to open-access alternatives. What is more, by declining to perform reviews for closed-access venues, we free up time to work on more relevant venues, and diminish our involvement with outdated models. This also gives us an opportunity to bring up the issue to the editorial board of the editor requesting a review, and to start a conversation about publication models.