When the mathematician Timothy Gowers, with some co-signers, started in 2012 his initiative “The Costs of Knowledge” to boycott Elsevier for their business practices, he was hoping to release science from the grip of commercial publishers. His reasoning went: with academics boycotting Elsevier en masse as authors, reviewers and editors, the commercial publisher would be forced to change its greedy ways, or the universities would separate themselves from the blackmail-like practice of Elsevier subscriptions (not that NatureSpringer, Wiley or others are much better in that regard). Meanwhile only 16800 people signed The Cost of Knowledge pledge, and some renounced on it silently. Open Access (OA) movement gained speed at roughly the same time, originally with the goal of reducing publication costs. Exactly the opposite was achieved, in fact what subscription publishers did was to usurp the OA movement for their greedy purpose, by subsidising OA conferences and feeding the egos of or simply doing business with those most vocal OA proponents. By now, same megapublishers sell so-called Gold OA on top or in addition to subscriptions; NatureSpringer and Elsevier became world’s biggest and second -biggest OA publishers, respectively.

University library budgets are near breakpoint, in fact Germany just now cancelled Elsevier subscriptions, in a desperate attempt to negotiate a better deal which would include both subscriptions and OA article-processing charges (APC). But some academics seem to have a different viewpoint on how to respond to publishers ripping off their own research institutions. They want their cut on the scam, namely to be paid for their peer review services. The idea is: since peer reviewing duties are not directly specified as such in faculty employment contracts, they must be then not a part of research activities, but a kind of voluntary charity to your peers, or in fact to commercial publishers. As journals and their for-profit owners (because even academic society-run journals are for-profit) make such big money publishing peer reviewed research, the peer reviewers want their share. And they don’t seem to spare a thought if science gets damaged beyond repair in the process.

incompetent referee

There are a number of problems with this scientists’ demand to be paid for peer review. I will list them below, and welcome your comments. I also added a poll, based on this previous Twitter one, this time with longer explanations and without typos. Please consider voting.

Experiments with bribing reviewers?

Paying peer reviewers is already practice with certain publishers seeking to explore scientists’ vanity to earn even more cash. Nature Publishing Group (NPG) has been experimenting with this model, where their OA megajournal Scientific Reports briefly offered in 2015 a fast-track peer review, outsourced to an external service provider Research Square, who recruited and paid the reviewers. Authors were invited to pay €750 for a promise of decision within 3 weeks. Under heavy criticism, the experiment was stopped at 25 manuscript submissions (out of 40 scheduled, with no word if all 25 were accepted or how satisfied NPG was with the review quality), and never resumed since.

Taylor & Francis sells manuscript authors premium peer review services, where authors pay 300€ per page for 5-6 weeks “submission to acceptance” review or €635 per page for 3 weeks latest “fast track”, which offers to publish your paper in 3 weeks latest. One wonders how calmly will authors take a hypothetical rejection after having paid several thousands of Euros (not from their pocket obviously, but from their research budget) for just that. The reviewers are paid for the service, and here one wonders how likely any rejection-friendly reviewer is to be given the cash incentive again by Taylor and Francis.

Peer review is part of scientist’s job

However, by far not every researcher is that greedy. Most actually seem to disagree with demands for peer review payments, even or especially because they see the scale of the daylight robbery which publishers perform on the research budgets. In fact, quite a number of scientists understand that peer review is an intrinsic part of scientific process, which would cease to function if a third party were to bias it with money incentives.

The evolutionary ecologist Stephen Heard explained it in his blog post “Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid?” that peer reviewing is actually very much part  of the academic’s job, even if not specified so by the contract:

“It’s just that reviewing is an implicit part of our vaguely-defined jobs.  There’s nothing terribly unusual about that.  At least for university professors, everything is an implicit part our vaguely-defined jobs*. I realized this a few years ago, when faculty at my university went on strike.  Some unions “work to rule” instead of (or before) striking – they do only the things their contract formally requires.  The obvious joke is that our faculty couldn’t work to rule, because neither they nor their administrators could actually specify what it was they were required to do.   My collective agreement isn’t completely vague: it does specify that I should teach, do research, and do service, and it even (most recently) specifies a 40:40:20 mix of those things.  But that’s as far as it goes.

So is reviewing paid or unpaid for me? It is true that nothing in my job description or my collective agreement compels me to do peer review, or connects any salary to doing it**.  But if, in that sense, my reviewing is unpaid, here are a few other things that are too:

-serving on graduate student supervisory committees

-meeting each week with each of my own graduate students

updating course content from year to year

serving on search committees (or any other committees)

-reading journal papers (inasmuch as I do it, that is)

-giving my colleagues advice about statistics

identifying insects for members of the public

giving media interviews about science

writing The Scientist’s Guide to Writing***

backing up my computer hard drive”

It’s also not true that peer reviewing is not specified in an academic researcher’s duties. What about that usual expectation to publish in “peer-reviewed” journals? Who is doing the peer reviewing there? Those less clever ones who haven’t figured out they don’t actually have to do anything without an extra payment? If you as academic don’t have to peer review for anyone, why should others help you fulfil your faculty’s requirements to publish peer-reviewed research?

Credit peer review, don’t corrupt it even more

But of course, in all those many unspecified academic activities, it is only the peer reviewing where some third party directly makes big money with. Scientists could simply refuse to peer review for certain publishers (which brings us back to Gower’s Costs of Knowledge”) or, even better, focus primarily on peer reviewing preprints. This way, peer reviews will happen in a transparent manner, signed with name, and allow a proper scientific debate between authors and their reviewers. But not only authors, every researcher reading those exchanges in real time will profit, while the reviewers can claim their rightful credit anytime (e.g., by linking their preprint reviewing activities on their CVs). It is an absolute win-win for all sides, including science in general, and noone is making money.

Banging on about how peer reviewing is an unpaid and burdensome charity work by otherwise highly busy scientists will only end up with university administrations asking them to stop that time waste. As the blogging ecologist Heard put it:

“Much more importantly, I think the fiction that reviewing is unpaid labour risks becoming reality, because when we repeat it, administrators, managers, bureaucrats, and politicians might just believe that we mean it.  If reviewing is unpaid labour, their not-even-unreasonable argument might go, then we shouldn’t spend job time to do it.  Instead, each organization might decide that its employees should focus on activities that return direct benefits to the organization (teaching our own undergraduates, writing papers about our own in-house research, patenting gizmos for our own company’s profit, what have you).  The problem, of course, is that we can’t all spend all our time doing those things, or the larger system of science will simply grind to a halt”.

“I have bills to pay”!

The bioinformatician Mick Watson countered Heard’s blog with his own, where he demanded money for his peer review trouble (highlights his):

“Here is a key point: I could never write another peer review for the rest of my career and my career would not suffer.  Not one bit.

It is not part of my job and I am not paid to do it.

(for the record, I do peer reviews! For free!)

In an increasingly pressurised environment where the only factors that influence my career progression are papers published and grants won; with over 6500 e-mails in my inbox which I have lost control of; and with a to-do list I have no chance of ever finishing, prioritisation is essential.  The key for any task is to be important enough to get into the “action” zone on my to do list.  Does peer review manage that?  Occasionally, but not often.

Would it get there more often if I was paid to do it?  Absolutely.  Why?  Because I have bills to pay and a small family and every little helps.  I imagine this is even more true for post-docs and early career researchers.  Why should they do something for free, often for profit-making organisations, when it doesn’t affect their career prospects one tiny bit? The answer is simple: they shouldn’t”.

Watson next assumes that if he and other researchers went on a peer review strike, society would simply give the publishers more money, so they could entice the researchers to return to their extracurricular peer review work. I can’t follow this reasoning at all.  It’s not like money grows on trees. If anything, that extra research-related money will be taken away from other public budgets. Welfare, housing, healthcare, pensions or environment, anyone? After all, tenured academics have bills to pay.

Other scientists don’t ask for money straightforward, but offer publishers a deal of peer review for a fee waiver, which I also discuss below.

Peer review is certainly under-rewarded, but some academics feel it is not part of their job and actually a service enforced upon them by and for the publishing industry, which means it has to be paid extra. By that logic, will professors next ask their students to mow their lawns or wash their cars in exchange for a bit of supervision? Or maybe should other professionals in public service follow the scientists’ example? Should doctors ask pharma industry for a cut when they prescribe expensive medicines (well, actually they do occasionally get it underhand, and we all are rightfully angry about it)? Should kindergarten teachers read books to children based on outside payments for their literature choice? After all, a kindergartener job contract does not specify “read books to kids” or in fact, “wipe bottoms”. That sure can be charged extra.

Heard was under some heavy criticism for his blog post, from his peers who feel left out of the money-making part of the scholarly publishing business. He forwarded me these comments:

“Actually, I agree that there’s an important and interesting issue about misalignment in the system, where some publishers can profit from work paid for by others. But I don’t think that changes my belief that my “job” is to do science, and part of doing science is to participate in our peer-review system.

It’s clear that scientists have a lot of different jobs. In some of those jobs, reviewing is explicitly a job duty; in some, it explicitly is not. In a very large fraction, though, it’s fuzzy, implicit, or otherwise unclear. That’s an interesting thing about our community of scientists and it explains a lot of the vigorous discussion around this issue”

Problems with the concept of paid peer review.

  1. Publishers won’t pay YOU. There are so many employed and unemployed, past and current academics around, many of them living in countries with much lower wage standards than the West, that publishers will simply go for cheaper referees. Especially where reviewer identities and their reports are kept confidential. Those relatively well-paid western academics, who make plans to earn hundreds or even a thousand dollar a pop, will be left standing with their hat in hand, unless they agree to peer review for a $10 fee. In the end of a price war, entire scholarly communication will degrade into a predatory publishing orgy where only publishers have fun and everything else is, well….
  2. Publishers will want to compensate. If Elsevier found themselves for some reason forced to pay their pricey reviewers, they will not use their huge profit margins for this. They will simply raise prices. Which could only break the backs of university libraries, because noone will be marching for science here and no sane politician will hold such speeches, demanding more money for research and education because academics want to be paid extra for peer review. If publishers must be paid so they can cash-reward peer reviewing academics, that money will be deducted from science budget. After such austerity cuts are made, same professors might find themselves out of the job, and then also of no use as paid reviewers for publishers either.
  3. All scientists will become publisher employers. The concept of conflict of interest (COI) will be driven ad absurdum, because now every academic will be a paid (or bribed) service provider to the industry.  Instead of acting on behalf of their universities and the research-funding public, tenured researchers will be tempted to secure that extra income by representing publisher interests. In this way, Elsevier would actually succeed in acquiring that last bit of scholarly communication chain they still do not own: the actual scientific research and its means of production in the lab.
  4. Peer review is not a business transaction. It will cease to work without the academic independence behind it. Scientists will be motivated by a money promise, and not by the scientific rationales before deciding on whether to review any given manuscript or preprint. In fact, paid peer review will spell death of preprint as concept and of all non-profit journals. Also, traditional peer review is already troubled by undisclosed COIs and business interests, how bad will it be when all of it depends on how much is paid?
  5. Tit-for-tat deals won’t work. Certain scientists are less greedy and ruthless, and don’t ask for cash in their pockets. They offer publishers a deal, where their peer review services would be rewarded with a waiver on APC for their next paper published with that journal. In this way, they put forward an expectation for their paper to be accepted regardless of how bad it might be. This is basically an open arms invitation to predatory publishing.
  6. He who pays the piper, calls the tune. Peer reviewers will want to remain in publisher paid service by delivering reviews publishers like to see. APC-based OA publishers are likely to prefer reviews which lead to manuscript acceptance, but also certain subscription-based journals are desperate to get enough content to justify their existence. Enter, again, predatory publishing.

But then again, some academics see little problem with predatory publishers, or bad science in general.


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15 thoughts on “The Costs of Knowledge: scientists want their cut on the scam

  1. good one! It really made me think about certain things. To be fair, I never expected that the publishers think about silencing the OA torches and pitchforks by paying the reviewers. Not in my wildest nightmares… But then again, I’m not a capitalist.

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  2. I globally agree with your arguments. I do think that we shoud not be paid to perform peer-review, but I understand the feeling of being “used” by the publishers because of their absurd pricing policy. As you said, volunteerily starting to review for preprint would be the right think to do.
    However, peer-review should be better rewarded. Not with money, but in the assessment of one scientist productivity. Most universities, departments, funding agencies, recruiting PI still primarily focus on the publication list of researchers. If the extent and quality of the peer-reviewing were better taken into account when evaluating a researcher (together with supervision of students, grants, etc) then people would stop feeling that they are “wasting their time” doing peer-review. And of course, this would justify switching to non-anonymous peer review.

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  3. Researchers who are affiliated to any of the Australian universities must at any time adhere to the 2007 version of the ‘Australian Code of the Responsible Conduct of Research’at https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/research/research-integrity/r39_australian_code_responsible_conduct_research_150811.pdf

    It is stated at page 1.3 that “Institutions are expected to (…) actively encourage mutual cooperation with open exchange of ideas between peers, and respect for freedom of expression and inquiry”.

    Page 6.1 and page 6.2 (section 6 Peer Review) provides additional details:
    “The term ‘peer review’ is used here to describe impartial and independent assessment of research by others working in the same or a related field. Peer review has a number of important roles in research and research management, in the assessment of grant applications, in selecting material for publication, in the review of performance of researchers and teams, and in the selection of staff. Participation in peer review processes should be encouraged. Peer review provides expert scrutiny of a project, and helps to maintain high standards and encourage accurate, thorough and credible research reporting.”

    “Responsibilities of institutions. (…). Institutions should recognise the importance of the peer review process and encourage and support researchers to participate.”

    “Responsibilities of researchers. (…). Researchers in receipt of public funding have a responsibility to participate in peer review processes. (….). Supervising researchers have a responsibility to assist trainee researchers in developing the necessary skills for peer review and understanding their obligation to participate.”

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  4. “University library budgets are near breakpoint, in fact Germany just now cancelled Elsevier subscriptions, in a desperate attempt to negotiate a better deal”.
    Everybody knows that Germany with its gigantic annual multibillion euro surplus is really desperate https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21724810-country-saves-too-much-and-spends-too-little-why-germanys-current-account-surplus-bad Leonid should avoid treating their readers as fools.

    Leonid says that if Elsevier start to pay reviews they would hired the cheapest possible in the third world countries. Really ? Who told you so ? Nostradamus ? Is that what corporates in your country usually do ?

    The fact is that top authors nowadays simply do not waste their time revieweing anything. And the fact is that since the increase in number of papers is much higher than the increase in the pool of reviewers then actually the peer review is becoming less demanding and as a consequence the number of errors that were not detected by reviewers even in top journals is increasing https://peerj.com/articles/1670/

    A different issue is should the publishers give something in return to compensate the papers and reviews that they receive for free ? And to whom should they give it to ? To the universities ?

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  5. I enjoyed this post.
    Monetary incentives to peer-review would result in the same consequence of the OA initiative, publishers will compensate these increased expenses in publishing costs. In my opinion, we must not walk this path!

    In response to Dr. Stephen Herd’s comment: Is peer-reviewing part of the academic job? My PhD supervisor regarded peer-review as a merit, and often delegated this task to his students. Nonetheless, my current postdoc supervisor refuses to participate, because it’s a waste of time. I agree with Leonid that nobody demands this, so why do you think it’s a necessary part of an academic scientist’s list of duties? You named other duties that are not part of your job descriptions, but in contrast to peer-review, usually you benefit from them or you are penalized in the long-run if you don’t do them. For example, if you don’t meet with your students, their research is compromised.

    I have a suggestion though, because it seems that some scientists look for incentives to do peer-review and some scientists believe this is pat of an academic community service, including myself. A possible synthetic approach: scientists who often peer-review are prioritized once they submit a paper. Your first reaction might be – it’s unfair, the manuscripts must be judged according to research quality only. I think there’s no contradiction, since this suggested prioritization deals with timing, not quality or whether the manuscript is accepted or not. This incentive encourages scientists to show that they are part of the community. Once it’s integrated in the academic culture, this prioritization incentive will cease to exist.

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    1. There´s nothing new on your proposal. Others already suggest that. Fox, J. and O. L. Petchey. (2010). PubCreds: Fixing the Peer Review Process by ‘Privatizing’ the Reviewer Commons.Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, July, pp. 325-333.
      But if monetary incentives are as bad as you say do you think that those Colleagues involved in the assessment of research proposals should also stop being payed ?

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  6. Do you mean research proposals of grant applications?

    It’s not the same, since it’s a waste of taxpayers money if funding is given to crappy proposals. Publishers have commercial interests, and look for ways to increase profit as any company. Federal funds or non-profit organizations that fund research have no such interest, only to promote good research.

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    1. That´s a twisted logic. When doing reviews for publishers you cannot get payed. But if you do it for non-profit organizations then you should get payed ! It makes no sense, it should be the other way around. At much you could have said that the review of grant applications requires more time.

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      1. It does require more time. However, you are right. Let me be clearer. Reviewing research proposal should be a paid job, like program officers and in-house experts. I don’t know enough about how this mechanism works, but these people are more objective as compared to active scientists in the field. If help is required by external referees, whose full-time job is academic, then, they should not be paid.

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  7. “Publishers won’t pay YOU” yes – and that’s probably one of the bigger issues in the whole discussion. If reviewing was payed, you’d have to do it in your free time. Meaning: If you are reasonable, you will calculate a per-hour-rate and decide if it’s worth your free time (or if another job would pay better). If you live in a high-salary/high-living-costs country you would probably never ever review again.

    A recent example from myself (really free-time, no way to do it at work): I was asked to review a grant proposal and I got offered a compensation of 100 Euros. Not to be biased by the high salary levels (after all, I still spend most of my salary on local products and services): With 100 Euros, I could order 2 salads, 2 main dishes, 1 liter of water, and 2 glasses (1.25 dl each) of wine in a restaurant. We normally prefer to drink an entire bottle… So I declined.

    Actually, I hesitated because the scientist in me told me that the applicant really needs someone to review his/her proposal (and for the same reason I reviewed papers as well). I’m still wondering whether I would have done it if they did not offer any compensation.

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  8. Well, not sure with 500, but at one point, I would surely take the money and do it. That’s in a way pretty much what I do now with my “regular work” (I work together with different research groups and I get paid for the actual work I do).

    My concern with “cash for review” is that being payed means being employed (and this also means that the pay needs to be high enough to be considered a fair pay for employment) – and being employed brings a lot more responsibilities/liabilities than doing it as a volunteer. That’s what I meant with “whether I would have done it if they did not offer any compensation”.

    The worrying thing in the context of “pay for review” is simply that the market would not work as one would hope for. It would probably end up the same as if one would hire “professional full-time reviewers” in a price-competitive country.

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