Processing a paper submitted to a journal takes 45 to 50 minutes of work, according to the director of a company that organises peer review for publishers.
The comments by Alice Ellingham, director of Editorial Office, which handles peer review for 85 journals, add to the debate about open access and journal profit margins.
Critics have argued that publishers do little to justify their subscription fees or article processing charges because peer review is generally done by academics for free. Fees per article vary widely; article processing charges at the publisher Elsevier range from $500 to $5,000 (£350-£3,497).
Speaking in London at the Researcher to Reader conference on 16 February, Ms Ellingham presented data from three anonymised journals that outsource the organisation of peer review to her company.
Staff at her company spent more than a quarter of their time screening new submissions, while sending emails also took up a sizeable chunk of time.
The 45-50 minute figure does not include peer reviewers’ time – just the work spent organising it and other tasks such as copy-editing.
Ms Ellingham later told Times Higher Education that “we would struggle to get it much below that [45-50 minutes]”.
Her presentation to the conference on “the unseen costs of peer review” argued that organising peer review came at a cost, not least because someone has to deal with bizarre problems and queries thrown up by authors and peer reviewers.
Justifying the use of animals in an experiment, one author told Editorial Office: “We did not need ethical approval, as the mole rats consented to participate in our studies.”
Disclosing their financial interests, another asked: “Does my mother’s pocket money count as financial assistance?”
Then there were excuses for late submission of peer reviews: “The in-house editors are strong and waterproof (not something you can claim of computers!)”