When 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.