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Updated: Editor quits journal over pay-for-expedited peer-review offer

With a tweet yesterday, an editor of Scientific Reports, one of Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) open-access journals, has resigned in a very public protest of NPG’s recent decision to allow authors to pay money to expedite peer review of their submitted papers. “My objections are that it sets up a two-tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups,” Mark Maslin, a biogeographer at University College London, tells ScienceInsider. “Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept.”

The flap shines a light on a fledgling industry where several companies are now making millions of dollars by privatizing peer review. This niche is being exploited because journal peer review is usually a slow process. After all, it is typically an anonymous, volunteer effort for which scientists receive nothing more than thanks from journal editors and the good feeling of contributing to the scientific community. But for a price at some journals, authors now have the option of fast-tracking their submitted papers through an accelerated peer-review process.

NPG announced earlier this week that it was trying out the peer-review service, called Rubriq, provided by Research Square, a company based in Durham, North Carolina. For a $750 payment to NPG, authors are guaranteed a review within 3 weeks or they get their money back. NPG declined to say how much of that money goes to Research Square.

How does the company perform such quick reviews? “We have about 100 employees with Ph.D.s,” says Research Square’s CEO, Shashi Mudunuri. That small army of editors recruits scientists around the world as reviewers, guiding the papers through the review process. The reviewers get paid $100 for each completed review. The review process itself is also streamlined, using an online “scorecard” instead of the traditional approach of comments, questions, and suggestions. The company also offers services directly to authors, saying it can help them improve papers and find placement with a journal. Business is bustling for Research Square. So far, Mudunuri says, the company has about 1400 active reviewers who have scored 920 papers. The company pulled in $20 million in revenue last year. Mudunuri declined to name the other publishers with which the company has cut deals.

NPG was quick to defend its use of Rubriq after Maslin’s tweet went out. The publisher replied with several tweets—“It is a small pilot to understand if this is a solution that works for authors & reviewers,” noted one. In a blog post by Nandita Quaderi, NPG’s publishing director, she wrote: “Needless to say, an author choosing the fast-track option is only benefiting from a quicker decision. The introduction of this service has no bearing on our editorial decision process.”

“It is worth noting that a number of other publishers offer fast track peer review services,” an NPG representative added in an e-mail exchange with ScienceInsider. “We have rigorously assessed the quality of service that Rubriq provides and feel confident that the peer review reports they will deliver will be of a comparable standard to NPG’s own.”

Maslin is unconvinced. “Deep consideration and a well thought out review is much more important than its speed. I have had brilliant reviews which have considerably improved my papers and I really appreciated all the time taken.”

*Update: A commenter on this story notes that he and additional editors of Scientific Reports have sent NPG a letter detailing concerns about the new peer-review approach.