Scientists, Publishers Debate Paychecks for Peer Reviewers
Scientists, Publishers Debate Paychecks for Peer Reviewers

Scientists, Publishers Debate Paychecks for Peer Reviewers

While some academics have called for compensation for assessing other scientists’ work, publishers haven’t warmed to the idea.

Shawna Williams
Shawna Williams
Nov 1, 2020

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Back in 2015, academic publisher Dan Morgan, then of the University of California Press, took to Medium to argue that a foundational assumption of his industry—that experts should volunteer their time as peer reviewers—is flawed. “I am fairly sure I have never volunteered my time but then had a 3rd party charge a commercial, profit-generating price for it,” he wrote. “[W]e all know that some publishers are getting very, very rich, while nothing tangible is making its way back to the primary volunteers making this happen.”

In return for their labor, Morgan asserted, reviewers for commercial publishers should have a say over the use of some portion of the revenue from published papers. As an example, he cited the model of an open access journal he’d cofounded the previous year, Collabra: Psychology. Reviewers for that journal earn credits that give them control over a portion of the quarterly revenue from the article processing charges (APCs) charged to authors: they can choose to direct the money to an APC waiver fund, which enables researchers who don’t have funds budgeted for APCs to publish in the journal, or to their own institution’s budget for open access–related costs, or they can pocket the money themselves.

Thankfully for us all, many reviewers feel a sense of obli­gation to participate, and that is a tradi­tion that has served science well.

Science journals spokesperson

The idea was: “Let’s test [whether we can] set up a system whereby the value that gets created in the scholarly publishing system could not just all go to publishers, but could also be hard-coded to circulate and return back to the academic community,” explains Morgan, who left UC Press for PLOS in 2018. 

Collabra: Psychology represents a rare example of a journal that gives reviewers the option of monetary compensation. Although the idea that peer reviewers should be paid for their work crops up periodically in online discussions and opinion articles, the Collabra: Psychology model hasn’t elicited interest among other scientific publishers who responded to The Scientist. Still, there is a widespread sentiment among publishers and reviewers alike that some stronger form of peer reviewer recognition is needed—and some initiatives are taking steps in that direction.

The case for peer reviewer compensation

Like Morgan, academics who think they should receive compensation for reviewing—at least from commercial publishers—often cite the perceived unfairness of performing free labor in service of companies’ profits. “If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do,” wrote George Mason University anthropologist Hugh Gusterson in a 2012 opinion article for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Academics should continue to review as volunteers for nonprofit publishers, he argued, but should “just say no” to requests from for-profit publishers that don’t offer payment.

Similar arguments appear regularly on Twitter and elsewhere online. “Hey academic publishers! Your profit margin is like 30%,” wrote urban planning researcher Natalie Osborne of Griffith University in Australia in a 2018 tweet. “If you want to ‘recognise me’ for peer review, pay me! Pay everyone who reviews for you!” Earlier this year, consultant and former academic James Heathers began a Twitter account dedicated to lobbying for peer review to be paid for like any commercial transaction. “I review academic literature during peer review for very, very large companies, and it is one of their revenue streams. When I do this, I want them to pay me four hundred and fifty dollars. No, I am not joking,” Heathers wrote in the account’s first tweet.

This fairness argument resonates with Mick Watson, a computational biologist at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, but he also cites more-pragmatic reasons for why he thinks publishers should pay for peer review. In addition to peer review requests from journals, he receives offers to serve on funders’ grant committees—work that he’s compensated for, he notes. “If I’ve only got so much time to spend on reviewing, then I’m going to prioritize the things that are going to bring in some money rather than the things that aren’t.” Having served as an unpaid academic editor at several journals, where he was tasked with seeing submitted papers through peer review, Watson knows he’s not alone in declining peer review requests due to competing priorities. As an editor, “you’re sending ten, twenty, thirty invites into the ether,” he recalls. “And you just either hear nothing, or you get instant rejections back from people saying they won’t review the paper.” 

Reluctance from publishers 

Of eight scientific publishers contacted by The Scientist, only one, PLOS, expressed enthusiasm for the concept of paid peer review. “We’d love to compensate our more than 9,000 Editorial Board members and more than 100,000 reviewers in a given year, but that scope is not sustainable for a publisher our size,” the organization says in a statement. PLOS is a nonprofit organization funded through authors’ APCs, the statement notes. Morgan says he doesn’t anticipate PLOS journals reconsidering such payments, absent an attitude shift in the industry as a whole.

Such a shift does not appear to be in the cards, at least for now. Apart from PLOS and UC Press, none of the publishers contacted by The Scientist said they’d so much as considered paying peer reviewers. Nancy Winchester, the Director of Publications for the American Society of Plant Biologists (which publishes The Plant Cell and Plant Physiology), writes in an email to The Scientist, “We have not considered paying peer reviewers. This is not something that the Publications Committee and editorial boards anticipate taking up anytime soon”—although she notes that reviewers earn points they can redeem for society memberships or merchandise. 

Presumably, if we paid review­ers, then either subscription rates or arti­cle processing fees would have to go up.

—Jason Hoyt, PeerJ

The Science family of journals similarly has no plans to pay peer reviewers, a spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Scientist, adding, “Thankfully for us all, many reviewers feel a sense of obligation to participate, and that is a tradition that has served science well.” In its own statement, Springer Nature cited its efforts to improve the peer review process, such as a recent trial initiative to recognize reviewers in published papers, but did not address paid peer review. The Society for Neuroscience (publisher of the Journal of Neuroscience and eNeuro) declined to comment, and publishing giant Elsevier had not provided comment by the time this article went to print.

Despite the calls for change from Gusterson and others, it’s not clear that many academics support payments for peer reviewers either. In 2018, Publons, a site that enables researchers to track their publications and other activities in online profiles, conducted a survey of more than 15,000 researchers in the social and natural sciences and engineering, and found that a little more than 17 percent selected “cash or in-kind payments from journals” as a factor that would make them more likely to accept review requests. “Discounts on publisher’s products or services” was a factor for even fewer of the respondents, just 4.5 percent, while 11.6 percent selected “personal access to journal content.” (Each respondent could choose up to two factors.) In a separate question about respondents’ reasons for serving as peer reviewers, the most popular answer was: “It is part of my job as a researcher,” followed by “I want to do my fair share/reciprocate for reviews of my work,” then “To keep up to date on the latest research trends in my field,” and “To ensure the quality and integrity of research published in my field.” 

It’s similarly been UC Press’s experience that the potential for compensation isn’t a significant motivator for peer reviewers at Collabra: Psychology or Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, which uses the same reviewer-payment model, says Erich van Rijn, the publisher’s Director of Publications and Open Access. The editors of those journals “didn’t feel that the opportunity to be paid as a peer reviewer was something that was motivating a lot of peer reviewers to work for either of the journals,” he says.

Practical challenges associated with paid review models

There are other barriers that may help explain why paid peer review hasn’t caught on. For one, the money would have to come from somewhere, and Stephen Heard, an ecology researcher at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, suspects that publishers would pass the costs along to users rather than letting their profits take a hit. “Normally, if you make something more expensive to produce then that something gets more expensive,” he says. “So presumably, if we paid reviewers, then either subscription rates or article processing fees would have to go up.” Jason Hoyt, the CEO of open-access publisher PeerJ, estimates that paying peer reviewers would increase the overall costs of publishing papers by 10 percent to 20 percent “for the entire publishing ecosystem,” even at a modest $50 to $100 per review. “I think people would prefer to have cheaper publishing, not more expensive publishing,” he says.

There’s also a concern that offering money to peer reviewers could introduce real or perceived conflicts of interest (COIs) into the reviewing process. For example, a journal might be able to influence a paid reviewer to recommend acceptance of a particular paper, suggests Aparna Hegde, an oncologist and researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Morgan says whether such conflicts would arise is “an open question,” although he acknowledges that the perception of COIs can be damaging even in the absence of any real influence.

Another difficulty is the administrative cost and effort in managing peer reviewer compensation. At Collabra: Psychology, the amount of money each reviewer controls from the quarterly pot varies but is fairly small—around $50, Morgan and van Rijn estimate. Van Rijn says only about 15 percent of reviewers opt to take the cash themselves, and an even smaller percentage direct it toward supporting open access at their own institutions, while the majority elect to support the waiver fund. Because of the time and effort needed to administer the reviewer-directed pot of money, and because its model doesn’t seem to be a motivating factor for reviewers, UC Press is now phasing out its model of revenue-sharing, doing away with the reviewer-compensation option in favor of automatically directing a portion of each APC into the waiver fund, van Rijn says.

What Changes Do Peer Reviewers Want to See?

Although scientists often take on reviewing assignments for altruistic reasons, many would like more recognition for the work, according to a 2018 survey by the reviewing website Publons. Of nearly 12,000 people who responded to a question about incentives for reviewers, 85 percent agreed with the statement that “institutions should more explicitly require and recognize peer review contributions.” Asked in a separate question to choose up to two factors that would make them more likely to accept an invitation to peer review (shown below), close to half of respondents selected “more explicit recognition of peer review contributions from universities/funders.”

Alternatives to paid peer review

Despite general agreement that many reviewers are primarily motivated by altruism, some publishers and researchers do see a need for more concrete rewards for peer reviewers, if not in the form of hard cash. PeerJ offers a $200 discount on a future APC in exchange for each peer review, and Hoyt says 17 percent of submissions come from past reviewers. Jon Tennant, an open science advocate who died earlier this year in a traffic accident, proposed that in lieu of paying individual researchers, publishers should include peer reviewing services in their agreements with academic institutions. “[U]niversities could agree that their staff will provide a certain number of reviews for a publisher in exchange for a commensurate discount on subscriptions or [the APCs charged by open access journals]. . . . If publishers do not lower their costs and provide financial reimbursement, then universities can stop those publishers from exploiting their staff for free labour,” he wrote in a preprint.

Others propose that employers and funders should formally consider peer review activities alongside research accomplishments and other factors when they make hiring, promotion, or grant decisions. “I absolutely think that . . . much more recognition in general by the community of the important work of reviewers is still needed,” says Morgan. Two organizations, Publons and ORCID, now enable journals to report peer reviews, so that researchers can include these contributions in online profiles of their work. For Watson, an additional step needed to make this reporting a true incentive on par with direct payments from journals would be “if the rest of the academic community—the hiring committees or promotional committees, the funders—all got on board and said, ‘You know what, we’re going to pay attention to those review databases when we make our decisions.’”

Such a movement would be in keeping with what Ana Heredia, the regional director for Latin America at ORCID, sees as a trend toward more quantification in academia, such as study authors using standard categories to classify their contributions to a published paper. (ORCID added peer review to its researcher profiles last year.) “Time is very short today,” she says, so when it comes to peer review and other types of work researchers are expected to do, “you want to be recognized, at least.”