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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

Should Paid Peer Review be the Norm?


Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

July 2021

Peer review is demanding. A single paper can eat up a whole day, and the work largely goes unpaid. Why, then, would a busy academic go through the trouble of generating a comprehensive evaluation? Researchers can use their review as a bit of prestige on their CV, and incentives such as free journal subscriptions or reduced article processing charges (APCs) for future papers are commonplace. However, scientists mainly offer to peer review because volunteer work is steeped in tradition. It is an understood facet of academic duty to review papers. You review a paper now, and when it comes time for you to publish your work, a few reviewers will step up to the plate. Thus, papers are reviewed and published, and life goes on. The cycle has worked for the last several hundred years, but journals are facing new problems attracting volunteers, which means that the job is both demanding and in demand. Thus, how do we convince academics to donate their time? The universal influencer—money—seems to be an attractive option, but it may not be such a simple solution.

Why pay peer reviewers? Is it feasible?

There is significant inequality between publishers and reviewers. The basic idea is that publishers are socializing the costs (peer review) and privatizing the profits. Richard Smith, former editor of BMJ, put it nicely in his opinion piece on the subject: “Science publishers get their “oil” (scientific studies) for free and manage to avoid paying many of their “suppliers” (for example, peer reviewers).” This theory holds water, as Elsevier reported in 2018 that they had an operating margin of 31.3%, which is an incredible profit engine. This is great for shareholders of RELX, Elsevier’s parent company, but rather inconsequential for peer reviewers, who never receive much in the way of compensation.

If there is room in the budget, why not shell out some cash? This is the question raised by James Heathers, a former research scientist in computational behavioral science now working in a senior position at a technology startup: “I want to be compensated for my labor in the same way any other grinning fool in literally any other commercial context on the entire planet would be.” This is a bold statement, and recent boycotts of Elsevier testify to the widespread outrage surrounding peer review pay and other perceived economic injustices in academic publishing, but little progress has been made to reduce pricing or offer reviewers a piece of the pie.

However, paying peer reviewers might not be possible without inflating the cost of publishing. One recent article written in part by Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS, suggests that publishers would simply raise their prices to cover the costs. This is certainly true, and the estimated upcharge would be between 20 and 30 percent, especially for non-profit or open-access journals that run on thin margins. In a climate where article processing charges (APCs) can easily run thousands of US dollars, the increase becomes all the more substantial. This, in turn, places the costs on authors, institutions, and taxpayers, who would invariably make up the difference.

Furthermore, it could be difficult for journals to pay reviewers because there are already several sunk costs. For every paper that is reviewed, only a fraction are accepted. Thus, a great deal of money is not being recouped by APCs for each rejected paper. Mudditt goes on to say that PLOS already spends nearly $2.4 million per year in hidden costs for peer review, including review management systems, editorial office teams, and overhead costs. Paying reviewers would bloat that budget considerably. Therefore, it may not be feasible to compensate reviewers even a modest amount without breaking the bank.

Do reviewers even want to get paid?

Of course, they do… right? A 2018 survey by Publons suggests otherwise. In this 12,000-person survey, reviewers rated what factors would make them more likely to accept an invitation to peer review. Several factors heavily outshined cash payments, including more explicit recognition of peer review contributions, papers being more aligned with research expertise, and an online record of peer review history and metrics across journals. These concepts are more career-focused, which aligns with Publons’ conclusion that “projecting the future state of peer review is fraught with uncertainty. Researchers, however, have a clear idea of what will make a difference: greater recognition and more formalized incentives for peer review.” While these “formalized incentives” may include honorarium, it seems status and positioning for career development come out ahead.

What is the elephant in the room?

There is a huge ethical dilemma involved in this discussion. When money is on the table, the sincere and honest discourse of peer review can become polluted. Unscrupulous reviewers may be incentivized to churn out low-quality reviews at a premium. That much is obvious. However, journals would also be pressured to find reviewers and editors that would more leniently accept papers to mitigate the costs with APCs. This, combined with the once-proposed fast-track peer review process, has the makings of a serious ethical hazard and could reduce the quality of scholarly writing. The foundation of academic publishing is built on unbiased reviews that proliferate good research practices, and paid peer review could sully that.

One could argue that some journals already engage in unethical practices by being for-profit entities that gate the entry to scientific breakthroughs. The existence of predatory journals is a plague, and lots of nonsense can get published already. Would paying peer reviewers necessarily change that? Yes. In fact, it would likely make the problem worse.

However, we must remember that payment is a sign of appreciation. It validates the time spent completing a job. We compensate public servants—police officers, firefighters, policy makers, and so forth—even though their jobs are noble, and we want them to be free of ulterior motive. Police are not causing crime to validate their existence. Firefighters are not committing arson to increase their demand. Politicians are not gridlocking government to keep the campaign donations coming. Okay, maybe the last one is not such a good example. The point is that we would need to trust our fellow researchers, just as we trust anyone in any position that receives a salary.

In the end, peer review can leave both sides decrying the state of affairs. Reviewers feel like their time is being exploited and journals feel increasingly pressured to find reviewers for their flurry of submissions. Thus, the question is not merely whether the economics allow for it but whether we should incentivize peer review in this way. Other options exist, such as giving volunteers more journal-specific perks and accolades, and that seems sufficient for a good chunk of peer reviewers. Ancient wisdom gives us the old adage: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The problem is that peer reviewers are difficult to find, and something needs to budge.

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