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…