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 Springer, 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; SpringerNature 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.
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
–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:
Problems with the concept of paid peer review.
- 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….
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!