Journals report that it is becoming harder and harder to find willing reviewers, so the idea of paying them to review is getting a new airing. The Researcher to Reader conference this year held a debate (Part 1 & Part 2 viewable online) on the motion “Resolved: Publishers Should Pay Academics for Peer Review” and both of us (Tim Vines and Alison Mudditt) were asked to speak against the motion. Since our opening and rebuttal statements were only read aloud at the debate, we present an adapted version of our case here.
A new peer review bureaucracy
There are so many problems it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s go with the fee itself.
Just like articles themselves, reviews vary wildly in length, quality and complexity — where would we start with assessing an appropriate fee? Our fellow debater James Heathers has started a movement calling for reviewers to be paid $450 for their reviewing efforts. Reviewers can ask for any amount they like, so why pick $450?. Some articles are so intricate that there are perhaps only a handful of experts on earth who can review them — what are their reviews worth? The going rate for expert witness testimony in a court case starts at about $300 per hour — using this rate, a 20 hour review of a long and complex article could then come in at $6000.
It’s clear that even the apparently minor task of determining the fee is a bureaucratic quagmire that neither publishers, editors nor academia want to deal with. But there’s also the question of who pays this fee. One of the primary goals here is to penalize big publishers who make “too much” profit. Setting aside the challenges of how that’s defined and who gets to decide how much is too much, such a system would require publishers to build an entirely new infrastructure to handle hundreds of thousands of micropayments. This would be a huge burden on any publisher but especially smaller ones with tight margins — and it would act as a massive additional drag on the efficiency of the peer review system.
The truth is that payments to reviewers would just lead publishers to raise their prices. They’d raise prices to cover the money they’re paying reviewers. And they’d raise them again to cover the cost of making those payments. A movement focused on punishing big commercial publishers by forcing them to pay reviewers would thus lead to big publishers jacking up their prices by 20 to 30 percent. Publishers will just pass the costs along to libraries and authors, drawing additional money out of library budgets and granting agencies’ publication funds, and putting a healthy percentage into big publishers’ pockets.
It’s also worth quantifying the additional direct costs — especially in a system that is already considered too expensive by many. In an APC world, the authors of the accepted articles cover the costs of reviewing all those other articles that get rejected. For an Open Access journal with a 25% acceptance rate and an average of 2.2 reviews per article, paying the reviewers for one article’s worth of review comes in an 2.2 * $450 = $990. The journal reviews 1/0.25 = 4 articles to find one that is publishable, and the authors of the publishable article pay the costs for reviewing the other three. So, the modest proposal of a $450 fee for each review balloons to an additional $3960 being added to the Article Processing Charge for an average journal.
And then of course there’s the spurious argument that publishers don’t pay for peer review. In fact, they spend millions of dollars each year supporting the peer review process, taking on tasks that would require hours of effort from authors or reviewers. They pay for peer review management systems, stipends for journal editors, and internal editorial office teams. At PLOS alone, this costs about $2.4 million each year — and those are just the direct costs, without adding any management layers or necessary overhead such as office space, finance and Human Resources. If we were to implement the notional $450 dollars per review, PLOS’s costs on PLOS ONE alone in 2020 would have increased by over $30 million. Add in the other PLOS journals, and these fees would have more than doubled PLOS’s entire cost base.
Even if the fee were a mere $100 — significantly lower than others have suggested — this would wipe out the entire surplus of most society publishers. And in so doing, eliminate investment in the society’s research and researchers.
The ethical quagmire
For those who perhaps care less about the negative impacts of paying reviewers on publishers, it’s worth thinking about the integrity of the entire peer review system.
First of all, paying reviewers creates a number of new and problematic conflicts of interest for both the reviewer and the journal editor. This is particularly the case in an APC model where reviewers must be paid even if they reject an article, but the journal earns no revenue. There is a risk that some editors will want to find reviewers who will accept the article so costs can be recouped from the APC.
The prospect of a quick buck would also tempt some reviewers to comment on articles well outside of their area, or to tell Editors what they think they want to hear so they get hired again. We’ve already seen concerns caused by similar issues, especially when linked with “fast track” peer review. And even if we only applied a peer review fee to some subset of predetermined “greedy” publishers, surely, we’d then be incentivizing reviewers to review for them rather than the “good guys”.
Next, the academic reward system already has plenty of perverse and damaging incentives: paying reviewers would add yet more. Review payments likely incentivizes quick, non-detailed reports that don’t serve the community well. It’s quite possible that we’d see the emergence of “review factories” — along the lines of paper mills — and a sharp spike in review fraud as there would now be double benefit to these activities. And just as we’re starting to see healthy and much-needed experimentation with new forms of review such as reviews of preprints, these would likely fail as many academics would be reluctant to peer review for free.
In sum, bringing money into a system built on trust and altruism will be highly corrosive: motivation will shift from professional duty to maximizing profit, and a whole new class of ethical infractions and conflicts of interest arrives.
Deepening the divides
We’re at a moment when we are increasingly aware of the deep inequities in the global research system; paying reviewers would undermine our efforts to be more inclusive. We know that reviewers currently come mainly from the Global North (in spite of efforts to change this) and so yet again, this is where the money would flow, further disadvantaging researchers in low- and moderate-income countries. If we charge authors for that review services via APCs, it will create another problematic transfer of funds in the wrong direction.
So what are the solutions?
Let’s move to academics themselves: do they actually *want* to be paid? Some view peer review as a service to their community — a quid pro quo of having your own work reviewed. Many reviewers also have a desire to help shape their fields and to get a sneak peek at new work before it’s published. Acting as a peer-reviewer thus has the characteristics of a community service driven partly by altruism. We want to stress that there is a lot of research showing that altruistic behavior is quickly eroded into an ugly mess by the addition of financial incentives (c.f., the overjustification effect)
We can’t end without asking the obvious question: what problem is paying reviewers actually trying to solve?
If it’s anger at the scale of selected publishers’ profit, then there’s a far simpler solution: don’t review for or publish in their journals. The most powerful action each of us has as a consumer is where we choose to spend our time and resources: if I think that certain publishers are generating inflated profits based on my labor, I can simply choose not to give them my labor.
We suspect that what’s actually going on here is more complicated. When researchers call for payment for review, we might find that the majority are simply asking for recognition. Because we traditionally recognize work with pay, the ‘demand’ is formed as a request for payment. So, instead of getting into a mess by trying to pay them money, we must work harder on rewarding reviewers with other currencies of academia: reputation, recognition, and success.
We acknowledge that there are indeed many underpaid and overworked people in academia, especially among early career researchers. Paying them for peer review is not going to solve that deeper set of injustices. Let’s tackle those injustices directly instead.