Recently, Cambridge Economic Policy Associates completed an analysis trying to assess the “hidden” value of peer-review, according to a story in the Times Higher Education. They estimate the value to be £1.9 billion (or about US$3.8 billion), with the UK accounting for £165 million (US$326 million).

As the story puts it:

The study estimates that the global cost of undertaking and communicating the results of research reported in journal articles is £175 billion a year, made up of £116 billion for the costs of the research itself and £25 billion for publication, distribution and access to the articles (which includes the hidden costs of peer review) and £34 billion for reading them.

The report says there would be a “significant transfer” of funds to academics if peer reviewers were paid. But such a move would drive up journal prices, with the estimated “breakeven price” of a major discipline journal jumping 43 per cent, leaving libraries with a bigger bill.

This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. I can see this figure being used by people who tend to argue that free peer-review is exploited by profit-seeking publishers or government initiatives; now there is an apparently big number to put against that, whether the solutions that logically manifest by extension make sense or not.

But for me, the question at the heart of this is whether there is a more efficient way. We need this type of review in STM publishing. But is £1.9 billion too much? Are we spending too much, getting too little?

To begin to address this question, let’s break down the numbers to find putative efficiency metrics.

In the midst of the entire set of numbers, peer-review itself represents only 5.5% of the investment recipients place in reading the end-result (using the same group’s value calculations). This seems pretty efficient. A small number of informed pre-readers review work to improve the information, and it takes about 5-6% of the investment made by recipients.

And peer-review requires 1.6% of the investment required by research. Put another way, any problems with efficiency in the overall system might exist in the remaining 98.4% of the total.

Overall, unpaid peer-review seems a small donation (1.1% of the calculated total) to the greater good (98.9%).

This seems pretty efficient to me.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.