Weird things scientists believe: that paying reviewers won’t cost us

Warning: a little ranty.

I’m fascinated by the weird things some scientists believe, in the face of what seems to me common sense and obvious constraints. There are many examples (like the common disdain for “nearly significant”), but the one I’ve chosen to offend people with today is a surprisingly common belief: that we could have journals pay their peer reviewers out of their profit margins without additional cost to authors. I see this claim frequently, most often on Twitter (although I’m not going to link to any particular exemplar, because the claim is too common to make it sensible to dunk on any one individual).

To get one thing out of the way immediately: I’m talking here about the notion that a journal could pay its reviewers. As long as I’m offending people anyway: most reviewers are already paid for their reviewing work. But they aren’t paid by the journal (or its publisher); they’re paid by their employers, because service activities like reviewing are part of their jobs. (That’s not true for all reviewers, to be sure, although it’s true for me.)

OK, so it’s not about whether reviewers are paid, it’s about whether they’re paid by journals. If you don’t think very hard about this, it seems like that ought to be no problem at all. After all, a large fraction of the world’s scientific journals are published by 5 large for-profit publishers (Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis, and SAGE). And the profits involved are staggering: over a billion dollars a year for Elsevier, for instance, which represents a profit margin somewhere north of 35%.

There are certainly enough dollars there to pay for reviews, right?

Of course there are. The big five publishers could absorb the cost of paying for reviews without passing any costs on to authors. But here’s where I smack my head every time: what on Earth leads people to suggest that they would? For-profit publishing is a business, the point of which is to generate income for shareholders (or owners). Businesses aren’t noted for voluntarily reducing their profit margins below what’s otherwise possible. Imagine that journals had to pay for reviews – let’s say $150 to each of 3 reviewers, or $450, for each paper. It’s hard to imagine anything happening other than the authors being on the hook for an additional $450 in page charges or APC.* That’s what we’d expect in response to an additional $450 in staff wages, building rent, server costs, or anything else, isn’t it? We can of course argue that we’d prefer this not to be true; but surely only magical thinking can make us actually believe that it isn’t. I’m fascinated that this magical thinking is common enough for the idea to be raised regularly.

Now, if we don’t like the profits flowing to big commercial publishers who don’t pay for reviews, there are Things We Could Do. Here are a few – but (to tip my hand), I don’t think any of them is a reasonable response to the problem.

We could all agree to boycott them as authors**, publishing instead in excellent society and other non-profit journals. (These don’t pay their reviewers either, but at least they don’t make huge profits while not paying them.) The fact that we don’t do this, though, suggests that the commercial journals are offering us a product (being published in their journals) that we want, at a price that we’re willing to pay – albeit while grousing about it.

We could all agree to boycott them as reviewers. Notice a few problems, though. First, someone who refuses to review for the commercial journals is, surely, hypocritical unless they also refuse to publish in them. Second, someone who refuses to review for commercial journals also arguably hurts the careers of young scientists who want or need to publish there. Third, this isn’t (as it’s sometimes cast) a case of boycotting them until they pay reviewers – if the result was that the journal started to pay reviewers, we’d still be in the same place with respect to the likelihood that the pay would come out of profits rather than being extracted from authors. It would have to be a matter of boycotting them until their profits come down. But that would presumably be a thing we could decide to do completely independently of whether or not they pay for reviews.

We could pursue regulation, with governments mandating payment for reviews while limiting either publication costs or profits. This could take an antitrust approach, I suppose, although that presumes that one can either argue a severe lack of competition among publishers or demonstrate price fixing – and I think either of those is a tall order. More likely, regulation could be motivated by a claim that scientific publishing is a public good. Which it is, and I’d have no problem with publishing costs being regulated just like costs of medical care.*** But once again: if you think even a bit carefully, the case or (or against) regulation really doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not journals pay for reviews. And, sadly, this is probably just an intellectual exercise – I’m not optimistic that regulating the cost of scientific publishing will be a priority for any national government any time soon.

To be clear: none of this means I’m happy with high profits at scientific publishers. I’m not! I’m just pointing out what apparently isn’t as obvious as it might be: those profits exist because we want the service in question, and whether or not journals pay for their reviews has little if anything to do with how we should think about the profits.

This rant is getting long, so let me close with the observation that this may be a special case of a more general rule. These days, we all seem to want everybody to be paid for everything. If I had a nickel for every time someone offers the advice that we should refuse all unpaid work, I’d be an (undeservedly) rich man! But we don’t, apparently, want to pay more for things to compensate. Journals could pay reviewers, if we’re willing as authors to underwrite that with higher page charges. Scientific societies could pay their Boards, if we’re willing as members to underwrite that with steeper membership fees or more expensive conferences. Granting agencies could pay their panel members, if we’re willing as researchers to underwrite that by accepting smaller grants. Those are all perfectly reasonable decisions we could make as a community of scientists – but apparently, we prefer to be outraged both about the cost of things and about the “unpaid” work that goes into them.

Offended yet? I’m certainly trying.

© Stephen Heard  September 8, 2021

Image: Coins by KMR Photography CC BY 2.0


*^Interestingly, if this happened it might have the effect of tilting the publishing playing field further towards, not away from, the commercial publishers. If commercial publishers all paid reviewers, society journals likely would need to as well. But adding $450 could double the cost of publishing in a society journal, while being proportionally much less noticeable on your Elsevier bill.  Unintended consequences, anybody?

**^Anyone who has been to a university faculty meeting will realize how improbable it is that the scientific community will all agree on anything. Except maybe that life on Earth evolves, that human production of CO2 is changing our climate, that universities should have Covid-19 vaccine mandates, and that gravity points down.

***^Just like medical care in the modern developed world, that is, not like in the USA. As long as I’m offending people anyway…

28 thoughts on “Weird things scientists believe: that paying reviewers won’t cost us

  1. sleather2012

    Interesting post. But there are some exceptions out there already. Many society journals are published by Wiley. I also know of at least one society journal that pays reviewers and a couple of Editorial Boards that have paid members. Quite a few grant review boards also pay their members.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You’re quite right, Simon, many society journals are published under contract by one of the Big Five. I think it’s very important for us to realize that these remain society journals; they’re just contracting out the logistics of producing a journal.

      I’ve been paid by grant review boards, it’s true – the Polish Science Foundation, for instance. But I think it’s unusual, isn’t it? NSERC and NSF, for instance, do not pay. Journals paying reviewers is surely even more unusual – I’m intrigued that you know of an example!

      Liked by 1 person

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    2. Martin Pareja

      Hi Simon
      Here in São Paulo State (Brazil) the main funding agency has an interesting system: If you have ever been a recipient of a grant or scholarship you are not paid for reviewing proposals: it is a condition you sign off on when you accept a grant. If you have never received any money from them they offer a payment (not sure how much…).

      I think it makes sense. You get the benefit of a grant, but commit to helping review in the future.

      Liked by 2 people

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  2. Pavel Dodonov

    I was wondering, is there a list of society journals in Ecology?

    I think one of the reasons people submit to for-profit journals is because society journals are fewer and, for example, my personal subjective impression is that their impact factor is either too high for the kind of papers I write to be accepted (Ecology, Journal of Ecology) or too low to make a difference for my CV (most Brazilian journals), which was very relevant for me a couple of years ago. There are exceptions, of course, but I think they’re also rather hard to find.

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  3. Eric Pedersen

    Thanks for the post, Stephen.
    I get the broad point you’re making (that paying reviewers might increase hidden costs) but (putting my economist hat on), I think you’re making some strong assumptions in your analysis. First, you’re assuming that all review costs will get passed directly on to the reviewers. That’s essentially assuming that the elasticity of demand for publication is zero; if the journals increase APC costs, it won’t affect the number of submissions to the journals at all. If the elasticity is greater than zero, than a profit-maximizing journal wouldn’t pass the whole cost of review on to its reviewers. There’s a few journals where the zero elasticity assumption is reasonable (there’s a reason that Nature Communications gets away with a $5000 APC just for having the name “Nature” in the title) but I doubt it’s the case for most journals.

    Second, I think there could actually be some benefit to having some costs of review passed on to authors; I’m increasingly convinced that there’s too many incentives to try and publish as many papers as possible, and aim that at as high an impact factor as possible. Because there’s limited time to write and review those papers, paper quality is suffering. Some behaviours, like submitting a manuscript to cascade of decreasing impact factor journals (behaviours of which I’m guilty too!) increase everyone’s reviewing load (i.e. are a negative externality) and should be disincentivized. I don’t know if paying reviewers is the best way to do it, but I do think it would be good to shift the equilibrium in the direction of scientists publishing fewer papers per year, and doing more, and more careful, review of papers.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Eric. Good point about elasticities. You are quite right that I should have said SOME but not all of the cost would be passed along. I suspect it’s “most”, and that’s especially true if most journals were to adopt the practice at once. But it’s an empirical question!

      Your second point, about slowing publication more generally, is a good one (but a whole different topic). I suspect, though, that you’d see howls of protest; we may know medicine is good for us, but we don’t like its taste anyway 🙂

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      1. Eric Pedersen

        I’m curious what the elasticity would be. Maybe someone has done a study on this, but I’m not sure. I do think that elasticity will vary a lot by journal: it’s likely low for Nature, Science, etc., and a lot higher for less prestigious journals with more competitors. Also, it shouldn’t be affected by the number of journals switching, unless they’re colluding with one another (which wouldn’t surprise me with Elseiver, Wiley, etc.). However, if demand elasticity is close to zero, it does raise the question of why don’t journals charge higher APC than they do? It’s not like Elseiver is motivated by making science more accessible to the world.

        Another thing that occurs to me on the question of costs: paying reviewers might reduce overall costs at equilibrium, if it was set up right! If a decent portion of APC costs come from handling papers that are eventually rejected, requiring submitters to pay a bounty passed on to reviewers could reduce the number of submissions, leading to lower APC charges (again, assuu

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    2. Brian McGill

      More than one author/paper has analyzed the profit margins in academic publishing noticed that they are so high they must be a signal of monopolistic markets (the profit margins of Elsevier is something like double Microsoft and Google which are frequent candidates for being broken up because of monopolistic behavior).

      So yes elasticities are not zero. But they are lot closer to zero than in most industries based on current demonstrated behavior of authors..

      I also agree that some disincentives to publish might not be a bad thing. My PhD adviser always claimed that the invention of the word processor ruined scientific publishing. Before that in the days when you had to type up the whole document, edit by hand, then type it up again, you had to really want to say something to suffer through that. Now it is far too easy to grab the metaphorical microphone and get a publication out.

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      1. Chris Mebane

        I’m surprised that no journals have submission fees, or at least none that I’ve heard of. Seems like a modest fee (say $50 USD) would at least help the highly sought after journals manage their APCs and costs of handling rejected manuscripts. Conferences routinely have submission fees. Of course most likely the dastards wouldn’t reduce APCs, they’d just pocket the submission fees.

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      1. Chris Mebane

        Now there’s a valuable role for a recently retired blogger. Blog historian! Ready to read, already written posts! With 2000 or so in reserve, should be plenty more salient links showing up here and related neighborhoods.

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        1. Jeremy Fox

          I think I did once repost an old post without saying that it was a repost, until the very end? IIRC, it got about as much traffic as a typical new post. So maybe instead of announcing that the blog was ending, we should’ve just put it into reruns to see if anyone noticed. 🙂

          More often, when I’ve done reposts to fill space, I’ve labeled them as such. Those reposts tended not to draw as much traffic as new posts, though they did draw some.

          Now that we’re no longer posting regularly, our traffic will start dropping off more rapidly than it has been recently. But possibly, there are a few folks out there who might find an organized archive of DE posts useful. Maybe if I feel like procrastinating one day, I’ll start working on that.

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  4. Martin Pareja

    Hi Stephen

    Great post! Read it last night and it got me thinking about some aspects in the “unintended consequences” territory for paying for reviews. Though they are not related to monetary costs (the subject of your post) I think they relate to potential “costs” to the system of scientific publication… I hope I am not too far off base!

    First, how would payment work in the vastly different legal systems throughout the world? Would this further increase costs because publishers have to deal with different legal systems?

    Would the worldwide reviewer pool be included equally? Particularly for Brazil (but also much of Latin America), most established researchers are hired in a work regime called “exclusive dedication”. Among other things it means we cannot (easily) carry out paid work for any other employer. Would this reviewer pool be lost, or would these reviewers carry a out the same job for no pay?

    Would payment be per manuscript or per round of review? Each of these would generate different incentives on the reviewer and journal. For example, payment per round would create incentives for fewer rounds to reduce costs. On the other hand, payment per manuscript would generate incentives for reviewers to not accept second rounds. How would this affect review (publication) quality, publication dynamics and careers (especially at the early-stage)?

    How would transfer of reviews work (if they are maintained)? Would payment be made only when a review is written, or each time it is used? Would each of these generate different incentives for journals to withhold reviews, or reviewers not to allow review sharing?

    If some journals pay and others don’t, how would the reviewer pool behave with respect to those journals? Would we have a segregation of reviewer pools among journals if some people “only review if I am paid”?

    These are just random questions that I believe have to do with hidden costs. I have several more of them… but this is getting long so I think I will stop here!

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Chris Mebane

      I’m on the board of a society journal that tried various incentives for reviewers such as 5 reviews would result in a an annual membership dues waiver, and there were other bennies for more reviews such as APC waivers or meeting registration waivers. They dropped after a few years. Too much hassle to administer, inherent inequity in review requests (How do you review if not asked and if the editor’s have never heard of you they won’t ask.) I still think they were on to something. The big 5 could offer loyal reviewers access to paywalled journals in the domain for example. Martin’s point about difficulties in accepting monies for professional work is likely widespread. It applies to me.

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  5. Jennifer

    Anytime payment for services is involved corruption is possible. For scientific articles, all of the many examples of peer review problems show that even without payment, people are willing to refuse publication for reasons unrelated to the science.

    So I view paying reviewers with extreme skepticism. I think we just have to choose to review or not, in function of our own commitments, and move on. Just delete or forward on all the other requests. As you said, it’s part of the work.

    By paying for reviews, we risk opening up the nasty black box of certification – is peer review about certifying the “correctness” of the results presented? For how long? Under what conditions? If I repeat an experiment and don’t get the same results do I sue the journal and the authors and the reviewers?? What if I pick apart their methods and data and find they made a mistake?? I really don’t think that the scientific community as a whole is prepared for that. The ecological sciences certainly are not. And I don’t think that that the scientific method, which allows for revisions and wrong turns, would survive it.

    I think the real problem is probably elsewhere – somewhere between the fact that an APC at Nature Communications for a single article is nearly twice many ERC salary levels, that I am expected to put in large numbers of hours for free because I love doing research, while the guy that pours concrete to fix my front steps wants to charge almost the same amount for a 4-hour job.

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  6. Allison

    As someone whose job explicitly doesn’t pay me to review, and who has expertise that is useful in reviewing papers (see for example the papers I’ve been asked to review), I’d love to be paid for my time. As it is, I’m using my free time to review and doing extra work for free outside of my regular job is part of the reason I gave up academia.

    I like reviewing. I think it’s important. I think I’m pretty okay at it. I’d like to keep doing it.

    Not paying reviewers does limit the type of people doing reviews.

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  7. Pingback: Friday links: the perfect scientific crime, pollinator action movie, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Martin

    “The fact that we don’t do this, though, suggests that the commercial journals are offering us a product (being published in their journals) that we want, at a price that we’re willing to pay – albeit while grousing about it.”

    I’m not so sure about that, are we ? Personally I think I would be perfectly fine publishing only in PCI or equivalent, if I could. The reason that I don’t is that, as an early career researcher, I know I have to try publishing in high IF journals to find a permanent job (+ peer pressure, because co-authors want to publish in “real” journals too). So I guess in a sense, being published in commercial journals is “something that I want”, but that’s because the current research evaluation system constraints me to, not because I value the product in itself. If indeed, we’d all collectively boycott commercial journals, the problem would be solved for me (but this won’t happen, because no one wants to take the risk of ruining their career, which is perfectly understandable). Speaking only for my case of course but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here 🙂

    That said, I perfectly agree that there is no reason why journals would suddenly start paying researchers for reviews, and also that most of us are already paid for reviews – as part of our job (although I have done a lot of reviews while unemployed haha).

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    1. T Shandy

      I agree with both sentiments. We value publishing with commercial publishers because it keeps our coauthors, institutions and funders happy, not because we necessarily love Wiley or enjoy navigating through manuscript central.

      Paid peer review creates all sorts of problems- churn and administrative overhead is definitely one. Some journals that have tried it stopped because of lack of interest (eg Collabra). It also adds to the systemic starvation of any journal outside the orbit of the major publishers. After all, what happens to free society journal when they can’t afford to pay reviewers but all the big journals can? Why would good scientists bother reviewing for a volunteer initiative if they can get paid to review at a brand name journal? It’s another academic publishing hobby horse that sounds progressive but is actually a bad idea if you think too long about it.

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  9. Chris Mebane

    I’ve heard that book reviewers are often paid. No direct knowledge, but it makes sense. That’s a lot bigger lift than a journal article, and corrections to a book would be a huge hassle for the publisher. Some really looong journal articles might fit that mode – Ecological Monographs or some of the Critical Reviews in …. – papers that can run 100 finished pages.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s quite right, Chris – if I review a book or a book proposal I typically get either ~$150 or some free books. Of course, the economics of book publishing are VERY different, in part because nobody (almost) thinks books should be free for readers! Still, the amount in question is token; it’s not why I review books or proposals, for sure.

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