scientist with dollar signWhen the United States housing market collapsed in 2008, so did the market for tenure track jobs in academia. I remember this event quite vividly when I was in graduate school. My colleagues and I, part of a large cohort of Ph.D. students, would watch, agog, as the administrative assistant took down job descriptions from the bulletin board, and wrote “position frozen” on others. Old faculty weren’t retiring, as we were promised — they just got older — and if they did leave, their positions weren’t being filled.

A new preprint appearing in bioRxiv, “Can paid reviews promote scientific quality and offer novel career perspectives for young scientists?” proposes a role for this “lost generation” of academics, often stuck in permanent state of temporary postdoc positions — the role of paid reviewer.

Paying for peer review is not a new idea. Journals have experimented with incentivizing the peer review system, offering money for timely reviews, credits or discounts off future publication fees. Rubriq, a commercial peer review service, currently pays $100 per review. If you consider how much your time is worth, this may not provide sufficient motivation.

Wurzbacher et al., authors of the bioRxiv preprint, propose paying postdocs a living wage of 100 Euros/hour for their time reviewing manuscripts. Estimating that each paper would consume 5 hours of work from 3 reviewers, they come up with an average cost of 1500 Euros per paper (about $1600 USD). As the review costs incurred by rejected papers would need to be paid by accepted papers, Wurzbacher argues for an additional 500 Euro submission fee to cover some of these lost expenses. Such a large submission fee should make authors very selective with their submissions, they argue, and to “double-check all aspects of their manuscript to make sure that the 500 Euros are invested well.” As a result, Wurzbacher hopes that acceptance rates would rise to 90%. For comparison, PLOS ONE has an acceptance rate of 70%.

Paying postdocs to review manuscripts would provide them with a temporary career alternative, Wurzbacher argues. Such a business model, the authors admit, would be far more expensive than using voluntary reviewers, and likely result in an uncompetitive, low impact journal. Still, they maintain that paying for review represents a “reinvestment into the scientific community.”

Wurzbacher’s proposal does not address a problem in peer review, but a structural problem in academia. To me, the authors would make a better case by arguing for better salaries for postdocs, mandatory retirement, or limits on tenure than proposing an astonishingly expensive and uncompetitive community journal that has little chance of success.

Providing postdocs with supplemental income from the reviewing process is an empathetic and generous gesture to a “lost generation” who had the misfortune of graduating at the wrong time. The proposal does not address the underlying structural problems in academia and, like adjunct professors, may further trap individuals in a permanent state of temporary employment by fostering false hope.

Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


5 Thoughts on "Postdocs Promoted As Paid Reviewers"

With that hourly wage it’d easily become a permanent career choice in most parts of the world. Who’d even bother writing their own paper if just criticizing others’ papers were that lucrative?

I´ve served as paid reviewer at Rubriq and PeerReviewers and it was good experience

I think reviewers shall be paid for their work, time, and knowledge. Why do scholars work for commercial publishers for free? I know a website, Scholartown, is promoting paid reviewer model. Scholars apply for the review work, and get paid. Actually, it is scholarly freelance platform. However, it provide a new way for finding active reviewers.

There is a need among clinical journals for experienced biostats reviewers. Perhaps there is a market for reviewers who are not necessarily experts in the research but in biostatistics, methods, trial protocols, etc.

How about the major companies take a slice out of the highest profit margins in any industry in order to keep their industry before it’s undermined by new payment models?

Coca-Cola sells sugared water and makes roughly a 22% profit after tax etc. Elsevier and Wiley are around 40%. They have room to pay people.

They get raw material for free as submissions from largely taxpayer-funded research, they get free labour because the ridiculous system of academia requires we not pay people for their expertise and their only real costs are publication and a small editorial staff to process submissions. It’s completely unsustainable and it’s getting worse, not better with ludicrous access costs per article and now 500 Euro submission fees?

We need academics more than ever as there are social and scientific crises in the world which require research and expert analysis to find useful solutions.

What we’re getting is unsustainable workloads where people are doing full time research, then additional time teaching, then more time writing and reviewing papers to make sure their field remains relevant. For a typical academic, this tends to be a minimum of about 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. If you told most people this was the standard for their profession and it doesn’t get better, they’d never consider it.

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