Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid?

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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.

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28 thoughts on “Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid?

  1. Yolanda

    From the publisher’s point of view, though, the labour of reviewers is unpaid. I don’t think this is a problem in the general pursuit of science, but when the motive of the publisher is profit only, a line a crossed. It’s like we’ve been discovered as an untapped, unused resource in a “sharing” economy, but our time is limited and precious! I definitely prefer to review an article for a non-profit society journal.

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  2. mooerslab

    Nice point – I wonder if this feeling is growing, and, if so, is it because we have started to internalize the corporate view of the university as a sort of factory. I do feel we are being fed this view of the university continually, at least internally.

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  3. Tim O'Connell

    I’d suggest that if your list of “unpaid” activities professors do every day is so nebulous that you should get those things established in your faculty handbook. Almost everything in your list is a specific expectation for my colleagues and I. For example, working with our own graduate students is clearly part of our research productivity. Updating courses (as I’m doing this morning) is clearly a teaching responsibility. This is basic professorin’ 101. What else would the job be if not for research and teaching? Refereeing manuscripts is a murkier enterprise, however – especially for the for-profit publishing houses. For that reason, I’m judicious in my participation and do ~5 per year. It’s not without benefit to me, but it definitely costs me in lost productivity and is an unpaid service I provide.

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  4. Michael Wiener

    Yolanda made the critical point well. Publishers don’t pay reviewers. Those who debate the role of publishers have shortened this to “reviewers are unpaid,” but this isn’t exactly what they mean. Decades ago, publishers made meaningful contributions to science. Today, they are rent-seekers who set up roadblocks for the spread of ideas. And they do this against the desires of the overwhelming majority of authors.

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  5. Matthieu Cassin

    Perfectly agree with Yolanda: the review is done, of course, for the sake of general science, but it also improve what a given publisher sell. So, the work done for the publisher is unpaid, and so, publishers directly use public money (or University money, or anything else), in order to spend less and upgrade their profit. So we may continue to say, and say perhaps louder, that publishers do not pay scholars for the review work they do.

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  6. Michael Eisen

    This is technically correct, of course. Reviewing is part of the job description of most academics. But the point of saying that reviewers are unpaid is not to suggest that they are uncompensated for the time they spend on reviews, but rather to point out that the publishers who are making money off of their labor – after all the peer review process is the main value add of scholarly publishing – are getting this labor for free. This constitutes yet another way that institutions of science subsidize scholarly publishing, and is an important reason why its absurd for publishers to own, and restrict access to, the products of this provess.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Michael. If it were phrased “Publishers (usually) don’t pay for reviews”, then I would agree completely. That’s not the same thing as “reviewers are unpaid”, as some other commenters have noted. You are quite right, of course, that it’s an interesting feature of scholarly publishing, and an opportunity for profit based in part on labour someone else is paying for. (The same is true with applied research, I’d maybe argue, but perhaps that’s a distraction here.) I know many people who prefer to review for society journals and other non-profits, for this reason, and while I don’t personally maintain that rule, I understand it.

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  7. lambertmr

    In response to: “Maybe graduate students, depending on how you see the blend of studentship, apprenticeship, and work-for-pay that constitutes graduate work.”

    Any idea what the reviewership load is between faculty and grad students? I’m sure there’s a ton of variation, but I’d be curious. I’ve reviewed 14 papers in 12 journals since the beginning of the calendar year (I’ve also declined to review 3 others). I generally agree to review if I feel it’s in my knowledge wheelhouse and I have the time to do the review justice and turn it in promptly. I’ve heard editors at meetings complain that certain faculty refuse to ever review. I can imagine faculty are busier and probably correspondingly take on a more limited number of reviews. Would that make grad students who review regularly less well-paid than faculty when it comes to reviewing?

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoy reviewing and agree that it’s part of what I’m generally expected to do as a researcher. I’m just curious as to whether grad students, or really anyone who reviews a disproportionate amount, are “underpaid” for reviewing.

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  8. Terry McGlynn

    Thanks, Stephen. I think this is an important conversation.

    I think if we’re taking an exception to doing professional service for our peers on the grounds that there are financial misdoings who are profiteering from our academic community, then we need to follow the money and make decisions on a case by case basis.

    Some journals are published by not-for-profit orgs, or university presses. No profiteering there.

    Some journals are published by for-profit megacorporations (Wiley, Springer, Elsevier). We need to keep following the money. Some of these journals are just run by the publishers, and sold for huge profits, which go into the pockets of the company and its shareholders. The one I usually name-check for this kind of thing is Oecologia. And this is why I don’t submit to Oecologia and typically don’t review for them. Then there are ones that are published by the big for-profits, under contract with our academic societies. Like how Wiley publishes Ecology for the ESA and Biotropica for ATBC and Springer publishes Insectes Sociaux for the IUSSI. In these situations, the ESA, ATBC, and IUSSI all have contracts with the publishers, and if our societies are representing us well, then they have negotiated an equitable contract in which they are getting their share of the revenue generated from the journal. (And I believe they are, and the societies use this revenue to provide services to members.)

    If you (not you, Steven, to be clear) have a blanket opposition to a society journal with a paywall and think that every journal article should be readable on the journal’s website for the public immediately upon publication, then this isn’t a beef with the publishing corporation but with the academic society. So direct your ire in a constructive direction. It’s not the whole funding model for journals that you don’t like. The bottom line is that articles don’t appear on trees for free and someone, somewhere, is paying for editorial, servers, distribution, and, yes, marketing. We’ve seen what has happened to journals that try to do it based on academic volunteer work – they just fall apart over time. Any open access journal that starts out with really cheap page charges doesn’t manage to stay that way (cough, peerj, cough). So where’s the money going to come from?

    I propose a new rule when it comes to criticizing publishing practices: No complaining about unpaid labor and greedy publishers without promoting an equitable funding model that you support.

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  9. Runner64

    But the 40:40:20 for research:teaching:service does not include being a peer reviewer. Promotion, tenure, and performance-based raises are not affected at all by one’s reviewing. If you did not do any reviewing at all, you would get paid precisely the same amount and you would not be expected to increase your workload in any other area. (In contrast, if you bring in large grants or have a heavy administrative load, your teaching load is reduced, and if you have low research output, you will probably be expected to increase your teaching/service load.)

    This is why many scientists do not conduct their fair share of reviews; there’s simply nothing in it for them. It is uncompensated work that is taken as being part of the professional workload of a scientist, but there is little to no recognition of it or reward for it. In fact, by performing reviews, you are wasting time that would be better spent on other parts of the job that *do* matter, like writing papers, grants, etc.

    It is completely accurate and fair to say that reviewers are unpaid. It is not work that is assigned or expected by one’s employer, and you would get paid exactly the same salary by forgoing being a reviewer. Or a greater salary if the grants you write in the time you save by not reviewing help you to get a promotion.

    And this is not even to mention how back-asswards it is for publishers to profit off of free labour.

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  10. mccnmatt

    Some of the activities you describe are clearly part of our day to day now but twenty years ago would have been the work of someone else – a departmental administrator or a technician. So one of the key issues with academic workloads is keeping track of creeping broadening of roles which frankly do keep other people out of work, just as increasing student numbers per staff member diminish the number of academic jobs. The line between good will and paid employment is quite fine in our profession. For instance, academics at my institution “volunteer” their time to attend open days on a weekend where professional staff get time in lieu. Why is this? I’m all for drawing lines around what counts as work at least so we as a profession don’t end up with an expectation with 24/7 commitments that are incompatible with family life (and good mental health).

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  11. Gob of Goo

    Notwithstanding all the other issues which were raised… in response to Runner64, at least at my college, performing peer reviews of manuscripts for journals is an explicit expectation of our Dean as part of our (20%) service, and if you do not show that you regularly perform peer reviews for journals, it most definitely will be a big red flag and definitely can impact your ability to get tenure, promotion, and/or a merit increase. Of course, your mileage may vary, etc., as they say.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Mick, and that’s an interesting counterpoint. I agree with a little of it, disagree with a little of it – probably as you’d expect! I hope readers will give yours a go too (and I’ll link to it up in the post).

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, I’d have to disagree with “by definition”. It’s not that easy. My collective agreement specifies that I perform service, so if peer review is part of that (as many/most of us take it to be), then “by definition” it’s paid. So we have a definitional standoff 🙂

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  12. Mark van Raaij

    Rather than payment to individual scientists, perhaps reviews should be rewarded with discounts on publication fees or some other payment into the science of the reviewer. Or perhaps discounts on subscription fees of the employer.

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  13. Willa Wu

    Even though reviewing is unpaid, the reviewers could get “paid” by listing it in their resume, learning some writing techniques, or getting inspired for new research of their own sometimes!

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  14. MZ

    The argument really misses the point. For some of us, reviewing is an explicit part of the job; for others, it’s not. Some of our salaries are paid by companies, some by universities, some by government. So you can certainly say that we are being paid *as we* review (though never, significantly, *per* review). But no one’s complaining about this! (at least, this isn’t what the Big Issue is)

    The Big Issue is when for-profit publishers basically get our time for free, which, YES, is paid for by our employers, get our research (paid for by employers and/or taxpayers) for free and then sell the products of that time and research back to us (or our employers and/or taxpayers) at very high rates. If I got paid to do the research and write the paper by Institution X, and you got paid to review it by Institution Y, should Publisher Z charge us each 40 bucks to get a copy of it? Or our institutions thousands of dollars a year to access it?
    So the question isn’t “are we being paid to review?”, but “are those who are financially gaining the most from our reviews the ones that are paying for it?” With the sub-question of “if you’re going to make a profit resulting from my review, shouldn’t you pay me for it?”
    I suppose there’s a sub-sub-argument to be made that if you’re getting paid by a university to review, maybe the publisher should be paying the university instead of you for your time (like a consultancy). But either way, many publishers are producing a product that is largely derived from work they aren’t paying for, and the main customers of that product are the ones who actually did the work. Which is still a problem, regardless of whether you’re obligated by your employer to feed that system.

    And that’s with the friendliest interpretation of your argument – as has been pointed out already, for many of us it wouldn’t hurt our careers in the slightest if we never reviewed another paper. The answer to “are we being paid to review?” is: Some of us are, some of us aren’t! But that isn’t addressing any real problem.

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  15. Gob of Goo

    Should we consider reviewing NSF/EPA/NIH/etc. proposals for free (individual proposals, as opposed to participating on panels, for which an honorarium is paid) to be equally exploitative or inappropriate, if we don’t think we should review journal manuscripts for free? Should we expect to be paid for that? Some countries, government agencies (including US) and foundations do pay peer reviewers of individual scientific research grant proposals. In the past few years I’ve been paid $50- $200 per proposal to review grant proposals by a private foundation here in the USA, several foreign nations’ NSF-analogs, and the US Department of Defense (I think I was paid $75 per proposal to review grants for the Army scientific research office).
    What about dissertations for students in other countries? I’ve served as the external examiner for doctoral dissertations in France, South Africa, Australia, etc., for which I’ve been paid up to ~$500 per dissertation. Should USA academics expect to be paid to be the external committee member on students’ dissertations from other universities in our country?

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  16. Gob of Goo

    Come to think of it, my institution’s rules are clear: if I get paid for it, it becomes “outside employment” outside the scope of my job, and I must declare it as such under our ethics guidelines, I’m not to use my institution’s time and infrastructure to do it, and it does not count under the “service” part of my job description for my annual review, merit, promotion, etc. If I perform a review for free, it’s considered part of the “service” portion of my job duties.
    I do know that at other institutions/agencies, it’s different.
    This is, rightly, a separate issue than that which has been raised eloquently by others: “should scientists perform reviews for free on behalf of for-profit publishers” (as opposed to university presses, journals published by nonprofits, etc.)? They’re two separate questions…

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  18. notesfromberingia

    I think of it differently. I value peer review and greatly appreciate the time others spend on helping me and my coauthors improve our science and its presentation. It would be parasitic to enjoy the benefits of such a system without contributing back something of similar quality. Yes, we can begrudge and berate aspects of it, but from my perspective I am repaid in kind by the quality reviews of others. And then there is the less direct benefit of being able to read published papers from which most serious flaws have been removed. So, if I wish to be an active scientist, I think I need to do reviews whether paid or not, or expected to or not. I do still turn down requests because I get too many and they take time, and there are always the unwelcome comments from “Reviewer 2,” but on the whole I think peer review is a good thing and look forward to continuing to participate as a reviewer and an author.

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  20. KTE

    Note added by Steve: After some thought, I’m approving this comment, although it pushes up against my comment moderation policy (and although I’m generally not a fan of anonymous commenting). I understand the emotions here – believe it or not, I do know some early career scientists, and I even was one myself not so very long ago. There’s no doubt it’s a stressful time. I’m sorry this commenter has come to think this way, but it is indeed important for people to know that this perspective is out there.

    REVIEWERS ARE UNPAID

    I know lots of academics who a) don’t get paid to review and b) are not in salaried positions. Reviewing takes time and energy. Time and energy that could be spent, making a living or a salaried position. When you are in a salaried position and you can contribute to over and above your job description, that’s great – the more hours your boss gets out of you the better – well done your boss.

    Perhaps you should interview an early career scientist, committed to research, without a saleried position about the decisions on his/her time, should they accept to review a paper, should they be finishing their own papers or applying for funding for the next piece of research? This isn’t someone doing a favour during your lunch break, it can take HOURS, if not DAYS to professionally review a paper.

    I’m so happy you have a job that allows you the time to review and the money to not worry about what that time will actually cost you bread line.

    How about not writing posts about people who don’t get paid for extremely time-consuming work feel even more self-aware and self-conscious about talking about not being paid for fear of being seen as complainers?

    REVIEWERS ARE UNPAID

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