Unpublished comments should be taxed

I don't think any journal editors read this blog, but I'm posting this just in case one ever does.

In the scientific literature, if a scientist disagrees with a previously published finding they can submit a "comment" to the journal and this comment is handled a bit like a normal paper (eg. there is peer review). However, for some journals (eg. Nature), the editors solicit a "reply" from the original authors, which is basically a comment on the submitted comment.  If the comment-reply pair is considered useful for advancing scientific understanding of the original paper (this is where peer review comes in), then they are published together.

My coauthors and I have just finished dealing with the third comment submitted in reaction to a paper we published in August. Many people dislike our result and have tried to falsify it.  None of these comments have been published, however, because in each case our reply has demonstrated the faulty approaches of the comments.  We have learned many things from the process, so in some sense it represents the interactive component of scientific research at its best, but dealing with comments is exhausting.  When a comment is submitted, we must read it, think about it, conduct simulations and additional analysis to demonstrate its faults, write up the results, edit the write up and compose a formal review.  Given my recent experience, I would guess that each comment consumes about four person-days of work between myself and my coauthors (costing ~$550 at post-doc-like wages).  For time-constrained researchers, this is a lot of time.  And for us, the authors of the original paper being commented on, there is not much flexibility in timing since journals ask for responses to be submitted quickly (Nature gives ten days).  So comments demand a serious time-commitment from the original researchers on short notice.

In cases where the original research really had serious issues that are clarified by comments, then this process produces valuable public goods. But in cases where the response is strong enough to prevent the comment's publication (our recent three experiences), then public confusion is avoided (a public good relative to the counterfactual state) at the expense of the original researchers' time and effort.  This is a clear externality imposed on the original researchers by the commenting authors.  As we know from Econ 101, this will lead to the overproduction of low-quality (rejected) comments in equilibrium, since the full social cost of a comment (the lost time of the original authors) is not borne by the commenting authors.  What should be done here? The answer is obvious from Econ 101: we need a Pigovian tax on low-quality comments.  We should penalize commenting authors if their comment is rejected, but not if it is accepted.  This will force authors with a comment to think hard about the quality of their comment before submitting it and will raise the quality of the average comment that is actually submitted in equilibrium.  Society will still get the public good benefits from the strong comments, but authors of original papers will be less burdened by dealing with the excessive supply of low-quality comments.  In the current no-tax regime, the oversupply of low-quality comments generates a pure deadweight loss in the form of occupying the original researchers' valuable time and slowing down their research.

What should the tax be? Well, based on my earlier estimate, roughly $550 for a comment that is rejected.  This is on par with the marginal cost of publishing an additional color figure (~$450 in Nature).  How can this tax be implemented and enforced? When a comment is submitted, a $550 bond must be paid at the time of submission. If the comment is published, the bond is returned to the authors. If the comment is rejected, the journal keeps the bond. (Or, if they are feeling nice and want to maximize social welfare, they give it to the original/replying authors! Under this model, I would be $1650 dollars richer and less annoyed at spending my time replying...)

1 comment:

  1. oh right! next thing you'll ask for reduced publication fees and open access! do you want the terrorists to win?