It’s not rare for people to remark, “Why should journals expect me to work for free? Reviews are hard work and my time is valuable, and journals since people are paying to publish and journals have revenue streams, so I should get paid!” Or something like that. It doesn’t sound unreasonable.
I don’t think having academic journals pay for reviews as a general proposition is a good idea. Is it good for people to be compensated for their work? Yes. However, would it be worth the necessary consequences if it became standard practice for journals to use a fraction of their budgets to pay reviewers? I don’t think so. If you happen to be one of the “I don’t want to review unless I get paid” crowd, please hear me out.
I buy into the standard argument that performing peer review is a form of
service leadership that research active scholars should perform for one another in the field. It’s a diffuse mutualism, in which we all agree to help one another out by providing reviews.
There are substantial inequities in our status quo, and I don’t intend to minimize or overlook these issues. Some people are parasites on the system by not reviewing as often or not reviewing well, and those who have the privilege of reviewing more often may accumulate more social capital in the research community than those who do not have the privilege of either being invited or having the bandwidth to review as often. However, I don’t think paying people to review is going to repair these inequities, and I suspect it would make them worse. I also realize that attempts to address these inequities with other kinds of approaches haven’t worked out so well.
I do think that some situations call for paying peer reviewers. For example, I think it’s sensible to pay reviewers of a book proposal or manuscript that could result in net revenue gain for the publisher and author. I also think that review panels that take up not just hours, but days, is a level of service beyond what is expected among members of the academic community.
Here is the list of circumstances where I think it’s entirely reasonable to expect to be paid as a peer reviewer of a manuscript under review in an academic journal:
-The journal is directly operated by a for-profit publisher and not affiliated with an academic society, possibly with extortionate subscription fees. (In my field, one such journal is Oeologia.)
-Any other situation where a publisher is making a nontrivial profit.
…and I think that might be the end of that list. (But if you think the list should be longer, please endeavor to lengthen it in the comments.)
Keep in mind that there are a lot of academic journals that are operated by academic societies under contract with the mega-publishers. Odds are that your favorite academic society is one of these, though some work with University Presses (yay! why not more of that?) The multinational academic publishing conglomerates enjoy the highest profit margins among all industries in existence (I’m not joking, this is for reals) and are making bank from outrageously priced textbooks and other academic publishing ventures, including an absurdly exploitative approach to K-16 online education. The financial model of the journals run by academic societies but run by these the mega publishers (Springer, Wiley, Elsevier) is to use funding from the publishers to operate the journal and support other aspects of the society. If the academic society has negotiated well, then they’re not getting screwed over. In at least some cases, these megapublishers a probably bankrolling us at a loss, because having our little academic science journals in their portfolio is a matter of prestige and also creates an aura of legitimacy for their broadly unethical and exploitative behaviors that bring in a LOT more money. Can societies afford to pay reviewers out of this funding? I suspect not, having seen some details of a few of these arrangements. They could, maaaaaybe, but it would come at the cost of other things that really need support, too.
My main concern is about paying reviewers is that it would increase the cost of publishing, making the process even more inaccessible to the Global South and lower-income folks in the Global North (including grad students), and exacerbate inequalities between institutions and people who can afford to pay author publication charges page and those who cannot. I suppose if the payments to reviewers are a token amount of funding, then it would only harm the process by for the cost of a few of these tokens. But that’s not what I think people are talking about when they ask journals for payment for reviews.
It costs money to run a journal. While some altruistic academics have been able to launch independent journals that operate at little or not cost, this doesn’t seem to be a broadly sustainable strategy, because if it’s relying on voluntary labor from all parties from start to finish, and without a stable and funded organization to keep it running, how long is it going to last? (It seems that Evolutionary Ecology Research has continued to make a go of it, since it was born in a revolution to liberate from for-profit publisher Kluwer, which is now part of Elsevier.) There are a lot of smaller journals which are operated by universities (I’m familiar with some in South America), who see this as a part of their mission. This is a good thing! I wish there were more of this. These presumably are not heavily financed by the institution, and couldn’t afford to pay reviewers on a regular basis, is my guess.
Where does the money to run a journal come from? Institutional and individual subscriptions, and author publication charges. The subscriptions are often part of big bundles, so tying subscription dollars to any particular journal gets complex and arguable. Anyhow, if you look at the money spent on producing journal articles and distributing them, then the money has to come from somewhere. Some folks are okay with this coming directly from the authors, their funding agencies, or their institutions. This is the funding model for major open access journals. If we end up paying reviewers, that will make journals more expensive. Which means that the cost to the authors and/or subscribers will increase. Keep in mind that lots of people are publishing articles without having the grant funding to pay for publication fees, and don’t have institutions who will be paying for them either. While I have paid a couple grand out of pocket to just publish an academic article, this isn’t something I’m comfortable asking of all authors, including those in the Global South, and do you know how many articles are published by grad students? I don’t have to remind you how much grad students earn.
I think this would further shift the publishing industry towards pay-to-play and increase the dominance of for-profit publishers. When academic publishing gets expensive, the massive for-profit companies gain a strategic advantage over other organizations that publish academic journals. The bigger the price tag of an article, the harder it is for low-cost journals to remain competitive and attract authors who want to publish in the journal.
While some journals offer author publication charge waivers, some journals are a lot picker than other when it comes to where the authors live and work. The bottom line is that the more expensive it is to publish, the harder it is for the most marginalized people to publish. If we’re trying to make publishing accessible, then making the process more expensive creates a strategic disadvantage for those who don’t have that kind of cash lying around.
There are bigger and broader reforms that we need in the realm of academic publishing. I think innovations can continue to come from governments and university consortia, and academic societies. The idea that our libraries are supposed to pay for journals by handing over a ton of money for-profit publishers is entirely messed up and we can do so much better. But if we keep arguing that reviewers should be paid, I think that’s ultimately an argument to bolster the position of for-profit megapublishers, who are best positioned to capitalize on such a situation.
Now that I’m on the topic of getting paid to write — I’m not getting paid for this blog (and I actually kick to make sure that you don’t have to see any toenail fungus or “whatever happened to this ’90s celebrity?” ads). If I was writing this as an essay for a publication that pays me, then you’d have a tighter argument, more informative links, and a lot fewer typos because there’d be a real copyeditor. (I suppose if we paid reviewers, we might get higher quality reviews? That would be one upside. Though most reviews I currently solicit are already high quality.) This adds up to me winding this post — all this writing about publishing is making me feel guilty about these manuscript revisions that aren’t going to write themselves!
Update 06 May 2021: On conversation following the publication of this post, I realize that I excluded a couple classes of journals from consideration. The predatory journals (you know, the ones that send out spam all the time), and the semi-predatory journals (Frontiers, Hindawi, MDPI). I pretty much refuse to do any business with these folks, but if you are going to review for a for-profit outlet like them, then yeah, they should be paying you. Though I think it’s better to abstain and not legitimize what they’re doing.