Image: Coins by KMR Photography CC BY 2.0
Reviewers, we all tell each other to remember, are unpaid. Sometimes we’re being scandalized about it, as in “Megapublisher X is making unconscionable profits on the back of unpaid reviewers”. Other times we’re being laudatory, as in “We should be grateful to reviewers for all the help they give us, since they’re working for us without pay”. I’ve said versions of the latter many times: for example, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, in this older post, and more recently and more explicitly in this post. But the thing is, it (mostly) isn’t true. We should probably stop saying it.
A few reviewers truly are unpaid (more about that later); but most of us are not. It’s just that reviewing is an implicit part of our vaguely-defined jobs. There’s nothing terribly unusual about that. At least for university professors, everything is an implicit part of our vaguely-defined jobs*. I realized this a few years ago, when faculty at my university went on strike. Some unions “work to rule” instead of (or before) striking – they do only the things their contract formally requires. The obvious joke is that our faculty couldn’t work to rule, because neither they nor their administrators could actually specify what it was they were required to do. My collective agreement isn’t completely vague: it does specify that I should teach, do research, and do service, and it even (most recently) specifies a 40:40:20 mix of those things. But that’s as far as it goes.
So is reviewing paid or unpaid for me? It is true that nothing in my job description or my collective agreement compels me to do peer review, or connects any salary to doing it**. But if, in that sense, my reviewing is unpaid, here are a few other things that are too:
- serving on graduate student supervisory committees
- meeting each week with each of my own graduate students
- updating course content from year to year
- serving on search committees (or any other committees)
- reading journal papers (inasmuch as I do it, that is)
- giving my colleagues advice about statistics
- identifying insects for members of the public
- giving media interviews about science
- writing The Scientist’s Guide to Writing***
- backing up my computer hard drive
But of course all these things are part of the normal conduct of university-based science, and therefore of the job I’m paid to do. It’s just that nobody has ever written them down. That’s what I mean by reviewing being just part of the vaguely-defined basket of duties that come with being a university professor – and for which, therefore, I am being paid. (The fact that we all know someone who shirks many of those duties doesn’t change this argument.)
I think most reviewers are like me – paid “to be scientists” without a completely clear specification of what that means. (I’d be curious to hear from my colleagues working in government, or for NGOs, or for industry, about whether or how this applies to them – please use the Replies.) Yes, some reviewers really are unpaid: retirees, for example, and those currently unemployed, or those employed outside science. Maybe graduate students, depending on how you see the blend of studentship, apprenticeship, and work-for-pay that constitutes graduate work. There are probably some groups I’m missing; but I don’t think these account for a very large fraction of reviewing activity.
So what? Does it matter if we say reviewing is unpaid? I think it does. I think the fiction that reviewing is unpaid labour might be making it harder to get people to do it. Much more importantly, I think the fiction that reviewing is unpaid labour risks becoming reality, because when we repeat it, administrators, managers, bureaucrats, and politicians might just believe that we mean it. If reviewing is unpaid labour, their not-even-unreasonable argument might go, then we shouldn’t spend job time to do it. Instead, each organization might decide that its employees should focus on activities that return direct benefits to the organization (teaching our own undergraduates, writing papers about our own in-house research, patenting gizmos for our own company’s profit, what have you). The problem, of course, is that we can’t all spend all our time doing those things, or the larger system of science will simply grind to a halt.
Science isn’t individuals producing specific, pre-planned, and top-down-mandated innovations in their solitary labs. Instead, it’s a massively interactive and largely self-organizing affair, driven from the bottom up as individual scientists chase their curiosity in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of teamwork and shoulders-of-giants-standing. Crucially, it depends on a complicated web of “volunteer” activity in which each of depends on the “unpaid” (but not really) and often unacknowledged work of others. Those of us inside science understand this, but people in other walks of life often don’t – and that’s a problem because we need bureaucrats and politicians and just plain ordinary folks to know that it’s worth investing in science even though it doesn’t appear to be designed for maximum, short-term, local-concerns efficiency. When we repeat the fiction that reviewing is unpaid labour, we become enablers of the very societal misunderstanding that we abhor.
So: reviewers are (mostly) paid. I am grateful to them anyway.
© Stephen Heard August 22, 2017
UPDATE: Yes, I agree that “publishers (mostly) don’t pay for reviews”. I don’t think that’s the same thing as “reviewers are unpaid”, which is my point here. But there are fascinating and important implications of that difference, as they relate to scholarly publishing and its economics. Good conversations in the Replies here and on Twitter about this.
UPDATE 2: It’s worth reading this counterpoint from @BioMickWatson. It’s well written, interesting, and makes good arguments – even (perhaps especially) the ones I don’t entirely agree with. Thanks to Mick for writing.
*^Not that all reviewers are university professors – of course not. I’m talking about academic jobs here because those are the ones I know the most about (having been more or less doing it for 22 years).
**^For some academics, there actually are salary implications, because reviewing is part of a basket of activities that are considered, during yearly reviews, in order to determine merit-based pay increases. This isn’t a very strong case for reviewing being “paid”, though. I suspect that reviewing is always a rather minor component, and substitutable with other indications of professional activity.
***^OK, I do get royalties on sales of The Scientist’s Guide. Believe me, I’m not getting rich off of them.