#3 September 21, 2001

Does Peer Review Improve Quality?

Each of us has had experience with the peer review process, and its not always been positive: nasty comments from referees and the all-too-often long times between submission and publication sometimes seem pervasive. Recently, at the Fourth International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication, hundreds of scholars and journal editors met to take a look at the process.

A research team led by Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Centre in Oxford, UK, searched the literature for rigorous studies of the peer review process. The team found little evidence that peer review actually improves the quality of research papers. Although the news was "pretty depressing" to most attendees, others remain convinced that the peer review process helps, even if studies cant prove it objectively.


In another paper, Paula Rochon of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, and her colleagues compared the quality, presentation, readability, and clinical relevance of review articles published in peer-reviewed journals and "throwaway" journals to determine why "throwaway" journals are so popular. Their conclusion: although lower in methodological quality, review articles published in throwaway journals appear to be better at communicating their messages than review articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Can Increased Competition Change Science Publishing?

SPARC is a global alliance of research institutions, libraries and organizations that supports increased competition in the scholarly communications market. SPARC introduces new solutions to scientific journal publishing, facilitates the use of technology to expand access, and partners with publishers that bring top-quality low-cost research to a greater audience. SPARC strives "to return science to scientists." UIUC is a member of SPARC.

Two years ago SPARC launched its first publishing partnership Organic Letters - a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Chemical Society. According to the 2000 ISI Journal Citation Reports, Organic Letters exceeded its primary commercial competitor, Tetrahedron Letters, in impact factor in the subject category of Organic Chemistry. In fact, 2000 ISI Journal Citation Reports Data indicates that when Organic Letters is evaluated only with respect to journals publishing more than 100 articles in 2000, it rises to number two in impact factor. It is surpassed only by The Journal of Organic Chemistry, the ACS journal to which Organic Letters traces its heritage.

Organic Letters has also created price moderation in the field, according to statistics compiled by SPARC. If Tetrahedron Letters had continued on the price increase trajectory it was on in 1995-98 (+15% per year), it would cost $12,000 today. But that steep trajectory immediately flattened with the launch of Organic Letters, which costs less than one-third the price of Tetrahedron Letters. "Real competition occurs at the author end of the publishing chain," said Rick Johnson, SPARC Enterprise Director. "Organic Letters has proven that if libraries give high-quality new journals time to become viable, they can build the prestige they need to compete with even the most established players. The Organic Letters example also shows that true competition can lead to price moderation."

For more information about SPARC and the impact of moderately-priced and free competitors in the marketplace for science publications go to:


Launched in April 2001 with a $5 million startup grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, ArtSTOR is designed to develop, store, provide access to, and electronically distribute collections of high-quality digital images and related materials for the study of art, architecture, and other fields in the humanities. Its first research collection will be the Digital Design Collection, containing nearly 8000 images with related documentation and representing more than 80% of the materials in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art. A second major research collection will be the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, containing high-resolution digital-coverage photographs and virtual-reality panoramas of the wall paintings in the worship caves at Dunhuang in western China and digital images of paintings, drawing, manuscripts and the earliest printed books that were originally from Dunhuang but are now located in museums and archives around the world. ArtSTOR is also constructing a broader Image Gallery comprising core collections of images and accompanying documentation for use in teaching and coursework.

In the early stages of establishing ArtSTOR, four key principles have emerged principles that will likely be critical in the general development of digital libraries in higher education:

For more information about developing digital libraries see

Information Access in the Digital Era: A Call for Collaboration

In a provocative article in the September/October issue of EDUCAUSE review ( EDUCAUSE president Brian Hawkins calls for new collaborations among institutions of higher education. Stating his vision that "all scholarly and research publications (including university, governmental, research and museum sites) should be universally available on the Internet in perpetuity," Hawkins then details the challenges to lowering barriers to fulfillment of his vision. These include content validation, coping with scale, intellectual access, unreliability of current search engines, and the lack of success thus far demonstrated by higher education collaborations. He calls for universities and others to reach out across the boundaries of their own institutions, across the boundaries of geography, and across the "artificial boundaries that inhibit an active community of scholars supporting one another." He concludes, "Only through a spirit of collaboration can we successfully adapt to the transformational change that surrounds us in this digital era."


Scholarly Communication Issues is designed to provide brief synopses of some of the many facets of this complex changing system. Please let us know what issues youd like us to cover. Send comments and suggestions to Paula Kaufman at