For many busy working scientists, receiving yet another invitation from an academic journal to peer review yet another manuscript can trigger groans. The work is time-consuming, and rewards can seem intangible. What’s more, the reviewers work for free, even as the large commercial publishers that operate many journals earn hefty profits.
But despite occasional, exasperated cries of “I should get paid for this,” scientists have soldiered on. Many cite a sense of duty to help advance their disciplines, as well as the need for reciprocity, knowing other researchers volunteer to peer review their manuscript submissions.
But last week, researchers at a scholarly publishing conference debated a provocative question: Should peer reviewers be paid?
The issue has drawn greater attention as peer reviewers have become harder to recruit. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, producing a blizzard of submissions, journals were reporting “reviewer fatigue”: In 2013, journal editors had to invite an average of 1.9 reviewers to get one completed review; by 2017, the number had risen to 2.4, according to a report by Publons, a company that tracks peer reviewers’ work.
During the debate at the virtual Researcher to Reader conference, arguments for paying reviewers were presented by James Heathers, a former research scientist in computational behavioral science who is now chief scientific officer at a technology startup, Cipher Skin. Last year, Heathers drew attention after publishing a manifesto, “The 450 Movement,” which argued that $450 would be a reasonable fee for for-profit publishers to pay him per peer review. Heathers based that number, in part, on what business consultants in his field would command. Other reviewers might negotiate lower amounts, he added.
Joining Heathers on the propayment team was Brad Fenwick, senior vice president at Taylor & Francis, a for-profit publisher with some 2700 journals. The pair contended that paying reviewers could ameliorate some widely noted flaws of peer review, including long delays in receiving reviews that too often lack depth and substance.
An antipayment team, however, predicted dire consequences if $450 fees became the norm. Subscription costs would soar and unethical reviewing could proliferate, argued a team that included Alison Mudditt, CEO of PLOS, the nonprofit publisher of open-access articles, and Tim Vines, a publishing consultant and founder of DataSeer, a data-sharing tool.
Here are excerpts from the debate, which have been edited for clarity and brevity. Following the excerpts, you’ll find the results of surveys that gauged which side the audience found more persuasive.
On paying cash versus other rewards
Fenwick: Some editors are well compensated for their efforts. So why would the same approach not be applied to peer reviewers? Universities provide faculty with the freedom to supplement their income as paid consultants and/or by being involved in for-profit businesses. There’s no reason that their contribution to the publishing industry should be treated in a lesser fashion.
Heathers: Peer review is treated the same way as every other common resource before it’s regulated—air, water, land, etc. There is no downward pressure on the endless use of academic labor. And the easiest way to exert that pressure is to value the task not [only] with recognition, but with the traditional way to support skilled labor in every other industry, which is money.
Mudditt: [Paid reviewing got] so little interest from researchers. A 2018 Publons survey found that only 17% of respondents selected cash or in-kind payment as something that would make them more likely to accept review requests. [The top priority, selected by 45%, was more explicit recognition of the reviewing work from universities or employer.]
Vines: There are efforts to reward peer review, and it goes on all the time. Good reviewers become editors, their reputation in the community goes up.
On whether journals can afford to pay peer reviewers
A.M.: There is no practical way to pay reviewers without wrecking peer review. Reviews vary wildly in length, quality, and complexity. Where would we start with assessing an appropriate fee? Why pick $450? There are some articles that are so intricate that perhaps only a handful of experts on Earth can review them. One large society publisher tells me that [a fee of only $350] would wipe out the surplus they returned to the society—no more investment in the society’s research and researchers.
T.V.: An average of 2.2 reviews per article is very typical for journals. And [assuming each reviewer is paid $450,] each reviewed article therefore costs $990. Of course, an APC or article-processing charge [required by some journals to make articles free to read on publication] is only paid by the articles that get accepted for publication, and the cost of reviewing the rejected ones is loaded into the APC. For a journal with a 25% acceptance rate, they have to review four articles in order to find the one that they accept. Multiplying by four gives us $3960 [to cover the costs of review for each accepted paper].
Imagine what this would look like across an entire industry. The additional cost for PLOS would be up $14 million per year, more than doubling their total annual expenditures. Surely that money would better spent on the research itself and on solving our most pressing global challenges.
B.F.: What might very well happen is fewer papers get submitted, because the costs go up. And that is actually a big threat to publishers that are based on APCs that have to accept so many papers just to keep their cash flow stable.
[Paying reviewers is] a model that needs to be tested. It’s a value proposition: If it produces higher quality publications, and does that faster, what’s the value of that to the scientific community? And for some [reviewers], the payment could be zero—they don’t need it.
On contracts between reviewers and journals
B.F.: A contract which provides an explicit exchange of value provides much needed certainty around the time frame, the quality, and the predictability of the review received.
A.M.: It’s completely unrealistic to expect that anybody is going to have either the time or the expertise or the scale to be able to manage and monitor hundreds of thousands of additional new contracts across the publishing system. Just not gonna happen.
J.H.: It is very hard to believe that companies who manage more than a billion yearly downloads [of scholarly articles] will somehow find it impossible to do contract and payment management.
On whether paying reviewers incentivizes unethical behavior
A.M.: In an APC publishing model, where reviewers must be paid even if they reject an article, but the journal earns no revenue—as an editor, you would therefore want to find reviewers who will accept an article so that you can recoup your costs through an APC. The prospect of a quick buck would also tempt some reviewers to comment on articles well outside their areas, or to tell editors what they think they want to hear so they get hired again. … And just as we’re starting to see healthy and much needed experimentation with new forms of reviews, such as reviews of preprints, these would likely be killed.
J.H.: The idea that paid review is somehow inevitably gamed by dishonest reviewers … assumes that an editor will hire them sight unseen … in the absence of looking at the work they produced.
Before the debate, a straw poll of 64 audience members recorded 41% for paying peer reviewers and 59% against. Afterward, among 50 voters, the balance swung to just 16% for paying, 84% against.
Whether journal editors across the board will remain equally pessimistic about payments remains to be seen. At the Taylor & Francis Group, a small selection of journals focused on pharmaceutical development pay peer reviewers for accelerated reviews, says Jennifer McMillan, director of communications. The publisher has no plans to broaden the number of journals that pay reviewers. Fenwick’s role in the debate was only to stimulate discussion, not to present company policy, she adds.