When courts move faster than peer review

I have a new paper in press on fisheries and social justice, one that reflects on a commercial net ban in Florida and one that was proposed for Alaska. I wrote this paper, along with a second and more detailed social-ecological analysis of the Alaska case, in late 2014 / early 2015 with the goal of contributing my expertise to the policy debate over the proposed ban. I even opted to pay heavy fees to publish both as open access, in hopes of making them as accessible as possible to Alaskans.

The trouble is, by the time each of these papers made it through peer review and finally appeared online (fourteen months later for one, eight for the other), the matter had already been decided by Alaska's Supreme Court. 

That's right. Publication of each of these two papers took longer than it took for a controversial fisheries decision to be argued and decided the state's superior and supreme courts. 

But let me back up. Alaska is experiencing a number of problems with salmon runs across the state. King salmon returns in particular have been troublingly low, and as a result, the last handful of years have been hard on small-scale fishers across the state. The Norton Sound king salmon fishery collapsed at the turn of the 21st century, a commercial fishing disaster was declared for the Yukon River in 2009 and 2010, and contentious closures were enacted in Alaska's Cook Inlet in 2011 and 2012 out of conservation concerns.

 Protests were common during the 2011 closure of the east-side set-net fishery in Cook Inlet. Note here that despite the contentious nature of the issue, there was still an evident sentiment of sharing.

Protests were common during the 2011 closure of the east-side set-net fishery in Cook Inlet. Note here that despite the contentious nature of the issue, there was still an evident sentiment of sharing.

My students and I have been actively researching these issues for years now, so when conflict in the Cook Inlet region escalated to the point where sport-fishing boosters were proposing a ban on set-nets, which would eliminate a way of life for many locals, I felt it necessary to provide as impartial as possible an analysis of the problem and the social and ecological impacts that might accompany the ban as a solution.

What I concluded is that there is no evident ecological basis to single out the set-net fishery as either a primary cause or ideal solution for the king salmon issues being experienced in Cook Inlet. Rather, the proposed ban used conservation concerns as a shroud for an attempt to reallocate king salmon from commercial to sport fisheries. Yet, because commercial fisheries in Alaska are by-and-large limited entry--that is, you need to own one of a limited number of permits--commercial set-net fishers would essentially have lost their ability to fish for a living because they would not easily be able to start fishing elsewhere or with a different kind of gear. 

These and other findings could have informed the policy debate and litigation on this issue. Ultimately, Alaska's Supreme Court struck down the proposed ban on constitutional terms, and the decision uses language that is very similar to what was in the early draft of one of my papers. So, professionally, I find the court's decision to be accurate. Personally, I also think it was the right decision in terms of social justice. 

There's no way for me to know whether my two papers would have made any difference in how the issue played out, had they been available. But this is essentially a dilemma that all scientists face who do problem-oriented work. We can't make judges or policy-makers or fisheries managers use our science. We can take the problem apart, critique the issues, identify possible solutions, make our findings readily and widely available, and that's where it ends.

Peer review is at the center of the academic apparatus on which we rely for that last, critical step, making our findings widely and readily available. If that system can't function fast enough to enable us to engage with these debates as they emerge, then the best available science will regularly be one step behind where policy needs it to be.  

Out of curiosity, I looked back at my last ten papers published, which span from 2013-today. On average, they took 311 days from submission to publication online; the longest time was 449 days (two took exactly this long, oddly enough). Four of the ten took longer than a year! Admittedly, the three that took longer than 400 days all involved two rounds of revisions. Nevertheless, this is too long. Anyone who is familiar with my publications know that I publish, by-and-large, in mainstream academic journals, so while my sample size is small, I'll venture a guess that I am not alone in this experience. 

I want to underscore here that proper, high quality peer review is essential, and many people have too high expectations for how long it should take. Likewise, I'm encouraged by the emergence of various new open access venues for publishing science like Facets and the PLoS series, as well as new models of peer review that are not necessarily coupled to specific journals or editorial boards. I believe we are teetering on a crisis in academic publishing, one driven in part by the flood of new, and often for-profit journals, and in part by the ever-building 'publish-or-perish' culture in academia, and these innovations are a ray of hope. 

One lever that we individual academics have to pull is where and how we decide to publish our work, yet, our options for high quality venues are limited and institutional guidelines for tenure and merit frankly disincentivize early adoption of alternative journals or publication formats. Another thing we can do is get our collective acts together as peer reviewers and commit to providing prompt reviews when we are called upon. 

However, the social and ecological problems that we face globally and locally are too imminent and too severe for us to wait for this system to change slowly. I recognize that I'm pointing to more problems than solutions here, but you have to start somewhere.