Peer review is broken. Paying referees could help fix it

Offering payment has risks, but it could expand the pool of willing reviewers beyond those on permanent academic salaries, says Duncan Money 

May 5, 2023
A dog offers banknotes, symbolising payment for peer review
Source: iStock

Paying people for work is not usually a contentious issue. You wouldn’t get far asking an accountant to scrutinise your tax return in exchange for gratitude or an electrician to check your wiring for a token of professional esteem. If a job requires the kind of specialised expertise gained only with several years of experience, you’d expect payment, not unreasonably, to be demanded by those doing the work.

Yet peer reviewers are the exception. They give their time for free, feeling duty bound to do their bit for the collective endeavour of producing knowledge. Indeed, there is a lingering sense that it is unseemly to expect money for such work. Recently, for instance, I was asked by a publisher to peer review an 84,000-word book manuscript. When I replied quoting a fee for such a big undertaking, the publisher reacted with surprise. They had never paid reviewers before and weren’t about to start now.

But why shouldn’t they pay? Major academic publishers are hardly charitable enterprises dedicated to scholarly pursuits. Most are highly profitable enterprises: the book publisher that declined to pay me makes an annual profit of £3 million – and presumably no one ever expresses surprise when its shareholders are paid their cut, even though they do no work for it.

Moreover, the proliferation of journals and articles being produced requires an ever-greater quantity of refereeing time. One survey estimated that the cumulative total of time spent globally on peer review in 2020 was more than 15,000 years. The authors termed this “a billion-dollar donation” to publishing companies.

The main argument against paying reviewers is that, in a general sense, this work is already paid. It’s one of a broad range of activities that are compensated by an academic salary. It’s part of the job. But part of which job? The number of permanent academic positions is steadily declining, and when temporary lecturers aren’t even paid for time spent preparing classes and marking papers, the idea that their pay covers any reviewing they might take on is laughable.

Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to make the case that even a permanent academic salary compensates for reviewing work given the huge workloads that modern academics already face. A poll by Nature in November 2022 found that almost one third of researchers had cut back on peer review, mostly because of work pressure. Meanwhile, academics despair of lengthening review times, while there is mounting evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that it’s becoming more difficult for editors to find peer reviewers. This is leading to talk that the peer-review system is fundamentally broken. Something clearly has to give.

One obvious fix is to expand the pool of potential reviewers. While paying for peer review won’t give overworked academics extra time to do peer reviews, it will encourage others with the requisite expertise to put their own shoulders to the wheel.

I’m not just talking about academics on part-time or temporary contracts. There are also people outside the academy with PhDs and specialised expertise who could contribute but who likewise lack an incentive to take on unpaid overtime to assist a profit-making company. Of course, some PhD holders who are no longer in universities might not be aware of the latest developments in the literature, so would not be best placed to assess the originality or merits of a new manuscript. But lots of doctoral graduates go into jobs that require an ongoing engagement with scholarly literature.

People in research roles in government, industry or international organisations have this kind of familiarity and often continue to publish. While conducting my own research on mining, for instance, I met plenty of geologists and metallurgists working in the industry who publish peer-reviewed research – but I don’t know whether they themselves did any reviewing.

Paying referees would not be without potential downsides. A major one is the risk that it would normalise a kind of piecework system, with a fixed payment for the completion of a task regardless of the time it takes. It’s not hard to imagine an enterprising university taking that idea and running with it, breaking up academic jobs into their component parts and paying accordingly – per lecture delivered, publication authored or grant application written. That would potentially push all academics into the gig economy.

But piling an ever-heavier reviewing burden on a diminishing group of permanently employed academics is not a solution, and nor is asking others to help out for free. It’s time for publishers to pay an honest fee for skilled labour.

Duncan Money is a freelance historian and researcher.

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Reader's comments (5)

This is severely disconnected with academic realities. To begin: who, specifically, is going to pay? whom? how much? under what conditions? but more broadly, the overarching problems are two: the decline of graduate advisors and more experienced colleagues modeling professional behavior that includes a moderate amount of responsible scholarly professional "service" in the form of reviewing within one's field of expertise. Correlatively, the decline of responsible editorial conduct. The other consequential factor is the rise of fake open access pay for play journals that do not actually review manuscripts Graduate and professional MUST be reconstructed. Period
While I agree that in a marketised and commercialised university system we should not work “for free" at all, I doubt that fees alone will fix the problem. The main problems are workloads and performance pressures (i.e., "grant capture" and "publish or perish" mantras), first and foremost. These pressures are exacerbated by financial woes and increased uncertainty for adjunct and temp staff, for sure. But the fundamental problem remains the same: too little time in a day and a week to meet all the competing and often conflicting demands on a modern-day academic. The change in professional ethos (or the lack of it) as mentioned by the above commenter are a factor too, but to me are a direct consequence of an academic system rewarding competitive self-interested or better “career-minded” behaviour rather than collaboration, altruistic service and good academic citizenship.
Academic publishing is a flawed business model. We academics work incredibly hard to undertake research, write, peer review and publish - all done for free. After that, we pay lot of money to get access to those knowledge..We teach how to run a business and the practice we adopt is on the contrary.
Glorified typesetters are extracting huge rents. Need to put a stop to it. is designed to address this inequity.