PubCreds: lessons from the Capitol Hill Baby-sitting Co-op Jul 29. 2010 | Comments (0)
PubCreds is an explicitly economic solution to the tragedy of the reviewer commons. So it's interesting to consider what lessons, if any, can be learned about PubCreds from one of the most famous case studies in economics: the Capitol Hill Baby-sitting Co-op.
For details on the Co-op and its use as a metaphor for economics, see here, here, and here. Briefly, the co-op was started in 1958 or 1959 by Washington, D.C. families who wanted to exchange baby-sitting services in a fair and efficient way. Families could earn "scrip" by baby-sitting for other families, and use the scrip to buy baby-sitting. There was a central administration which performed tasks like matching families who wanted a sitter with families who could provide sitting, and the basic system was modified in various ways to ensure fair, effective operation (e.g., new families were issued with some scrip to start them off, which had to be repaid when they left the co-op). In all these respects, the co-op is closely analogous to PubCreds: authors must pay for submissions with credits earned by reviewing, and the basic system must be modified to ensure fair operation (e.g., by allowing overdrafts for new entrants and others who haven't been asked to review in a while).
The co-op famously ran into problems. Families felt they should save up scrip beyond what they were initially issued before spending any, leading to a "recession" in which all families were hoarding scrip. The administration addressed this problem by issuing more scrip, which eventually led to the opposite problem: families were unwilling to babysit because they already had all the scrip they needed. There were also problems with seasonal mismatches of supply and demand: few families wanted to go out in the winter (and so didn't need babysitting), but all families wanted to go out in the summer. This led to families hoarding scrip in the winter in anticipation of needing it in the summer.
What lessons can be drawn for PubCreds? Fortunately, the most serious problems encountered by the co-op seem unlikely to apply to PubCreds. Because authors have strong external incentives to publish as much as possible, they are unlikely to hoard PubCreds which they could spend. PubCreds also is unlikely to be subject to dramatic seasonal mismatches of review supply and demand. Supply of willing reviewers likely will decline somewhat in the Northern Hemisphere summer, when many ecologists are in the field, but demand for reviews (i.e. submissions) should also fall at the same time, or at least not rise.
One lesson I take away from the co-op's experience is that the "money supply" is crucial. A system that is too generous with credits or overdrafts for new entrants and others who aren't asked to review much will break down. One way to avoid this is through mechanisms that encourage editors to ask for reviews from those who are low on PubCreds. Another lesson, which is really more "food for thought", is that it might be worth considering making PubCreds more fully analogous to a modern market economy. Different economists have suggested that the co-op's problems could have been mitigated if the value of scrips or the price of babysitting had been allowed to fluctuate. And over at Jabberwocky Ecology, Ethan White suggests that journals ought to be free to compete in terms of how much they pay reviewers (and that they should do it with real money rather than PubCreds!) While there's certainly an argument for walking before we run (or crawling before we walk!), Ethan's ideas are thoughtful and provocative and we'll be responding to them (probably on his blog, but with cross-posting here) soon.