Researcher leads drive for peer reviewing to be paid assignment

‘I cannot express how incredibly uncontroversial it is to ask for money to perform skilled work,’ says James Heathers

October 3, 2020
Printing money
Source: iStock

One Colorado-based researcher is taking a sledgehammer to academic tradition by starting a movement that pushes for peer review to become a paid assignment.

James Heathers, a wearable-technology researcher and now chief scientific officer at Cipher Skin, a start-up in Denver, Colorado, recently received a request to review a paper – and, having made the switch from academia to industry, his first instinct was to draw up a contract to charge the publisher.

“And I was immediately struck by how incredibly normal that was but, at the same time, how utterly freakish it was in an academic sense,” he said.

Performing the difficult and time-consuming task of peer review is typically not compensated. It is considered to fall into the category of tasks that academics are supposed to perform as members of the community, on a voluntary basis.

But Mr Heathers said that model is inequitable, and the request he received led him to start what he is calling the “450 movement” – named because he has calculated $450 to be a low-to-moderate amount to be paid per paper. He has created The 450 Movement Twitter account and even developed a sample contract with two lawyers, which is free for anyone to use when negotiating with publishers.

Mr Heathers said he is fighting on behalf of academics who “have no kind of fiscal backbone against which they can leverage their spare time to be able to contribute to the area that they work in…I started thinking about all of these people, and the fact that they could use the money, and probably needed [it] a lot more than I do.”

But not everyone thinks it is so straightforward. Rickard Carlsson, editor-in-chief of the open-access journal Meta-Psychology and associate professor at Linnaeus University, Sweden, agreed that everyone should be remunerated for peer review – but he disagreed with Mr Heathers on how.  

“The current problem is that most publishers charge outrageous sums for subscriptions and article-processing charges,” he said. “I think we should strive to reduce these instead of increasing them by adding $450 additional per review,” which might result in journals charging even more as a result.

He said that a better way forward would be if universities received discounts on article-processing charges from publishers, based on how much service their researchers provided for them.

“I think that peer review is a core academic activity that should not be put outside normal academic positions,” Dr Carlsson said. “Scholars should be able to conduct their peer reviews on a regular Tuesday, rather than having it as a side activity on evenings and weekends.”

He also worried that if Mr Heathers’ movement were successful, open-access journals – such as the journal he edits – would have “a tougher time competing with the for-profit journals over reviewers if it were to boil down to individual researchers charging”.

Ana Wheelock Zalaquett, a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London, recently tried out Mr Heathers’ methods when she was asked to review a paper for a for-profit publisher. She sent a polite, matter-of-fact response and included a contract.

“My motivation was really to protest against what I perceive to be a cutthroat and unfair system – which publishers are a part of – particularly for new researchers, for whom employment has become increasingly precarious,” she said.

They quickly responded with a no − and told her they would erase her from their database. 

She said she was surprised but proud of herself and intended to continue requesting payment for reviewing in the future: “It can be quite scary to go against the gatekeeper of your research – you don’t want to get into their bad books – but I felt it was a moral obligation.”

Mr Heathers encouraged others to try it out, too.

“The only thing that you could lose,” he said, “is the ability to be continually requested to do work for nothing. That’s it.

“I cannot express how incredibly uncontroversial it is to ask for money to perform skilled work.”

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Reader's comments (4)

Life is full of choices! The thing is, you don't have to do it. I simply politely decline. There are plenty of other people who will review for free which weakens the overall case. They perhaps have a view of academic life as a vocation, a calling, with implied responsibilities. It isn't. It's a job, just a job. Jobs are done for money, unless the individual chooses to do it for free. Sure I have spent plenty of evenings and weekends reviewing papers for high priced journals, for free. Did that bring me any benefit? No, I just spent less time with the family, less time playing with my son, les time in healthy recreation. Good luck with the "450" movement though. My day-rate is higher that that!
I never looked at my academic career as a job, it has been incredibly satisfying, and as the saying goes I never worked a day in my life. I am not surprised that people in industry would be mercenary about the peer review process, as a CSO I don't suppose he publishes any papers so it would be a bit of a chore. For those of us who publish it is a courtesy to review at least one manuscript for each one we publish. Editors should be more discerning about who they send manuscripts to for review. You want someone who currently publishes and is current with the field.
I tend to agree with Philip Nash. I am happy to do paper reviewing in work time when I'm being paid anyway as my university along with most others, I suspect, regards it as a legitimate part of my job, along with sitting on various committees for outside bodies. Still, if people want to be paid it is fine for them to ask- the publishers are commercial organisations after all.
I tweeted comments about this when Mr Heathers sent out his original tweets. In the late 1970s and 1980s I was a managing editor running peer review for journals at a UK publisher. There was a budget offered by the publisher, and every article referee was paid, as well as every book reviewer. It was the academic editors and editorial boards who Put a stop to this, feeling that filthy lucre should not be involved in the self-perceived ‘good citizenship’ of their academic community responsibilities. For 30 years until I retired recently as journals Publishing Director of one of the ‘Big 4K’ commercials, every time I asked an editorial board at annual business meetings whether they wanted to introduce paid peer reviewing, and that budgets could be provided for this, they were aghast at the suggestion. Well, all but a few economists and medics! This initiative is doomed to failure because of the academic and scientific culture in many subject areas.