A big part of being an academic is working for free. Not only do many researchers work beyond their contracted hours, as other employees do, but they also agree to review the work of their peers, unpaid.
Yet with publishers struggling to find reviewers for an ever greater volume of new papers, and some questioning the ethics of the voluntary system, some journals think it is time that peer review came with a pay cheque.
Veruscript is a London-based publisher that, in June, will begin the launch of four new journals, two in the sciences and two in humanities.
Reviewers will be entitled to a slice of a paper’s article processing charge (APC) and have three options: they can take a cash reward; save up credits to put towards their own publishing costs in the future; or donate these credits to help researchers who want to publish but cannot afford APCs.
For now, the company is keeping under wraps the amount it will pay, although it says it will be a “significant acknowledgement”.
“Obviously what we give them will never be enough” in terms of the full economic cost of their time, says Lucy McIvor, executive editor at Veruscript. The idea is not really about the amount of money but rather a way to show gratitude to a group that has been taken for granted, she explains.
To gauge interest in the idea, Veruscript ran a focus group at the University of Cambridge and issued a questionnaire in the US.
The results revealed that while US researchers were broadly supportive of financial rewards for peer review, “in the UK we got more conservative answers”, particularly among philosophers, says Nazik Ibraimova, one of the co-founders of Veruscript. One emeritus professor told them: “Money shouldn’t be involved.”
But “money is involved: people have to pay their rent”, she points out. “It’s not about the money – how much – it’s about appreciation, acknowledgement.”
Change is coming because the current voluntary system, some believe, is coming apart at the seams.
“There’s a greater burden of peer review because of increases in papers,” says McIvor. The current pool of peer reviewers is simply too small, she says; despite a large amount of research coming out of China, not many academics there engage in peer review, possibly because of language difficulties and unfamiliarity with the process.
Veruscript aims to get academics from a broader range of countries involved in the process.
“I don’t believe it is difficult to find a reviewer for a novel, interesting and well-written manuscript,” argues Philip Davis, a scholarly publishing consultant based in the US.
But “it’s harder to find a competent, authoritative reviewer for a manuscript that reports uninteresting results (confirmatory, negative or ambiguous), or for poorly written manuscripts”, he adds.
“I don’t doubt that journals promising to publish anything that is ‘scientifically sound’ are having a difficult time finding volunteer reviewers. In these cases, it may be more effective to pay for a review,” he says.
“We need to abandon the belief that there is only one peer review market that operates entirely on volunteer labour,” Davis argues.
Another drive towards payment for peer review comes, as Ibraimova contends, from a sense of injustice at work going unrewarded. A common complaint from advocates of open access publishing is that big, for-profit publishers make huge amounts of money from this free labour while contributing little to the process themselves.
At a conference last month, Alice Ellingham, director of Editorial Office, which handles peer review for 85 journals, revealed that organising the peer review of a paper takes at best about 45 to 50 minutes.
Veruscript’s model is not unprecedented; Davis points out that top biomedical journals already routinely pay statisticians to review manuscripts.
Collabra, an open access journal owned by the University of California Press that was launched last year, operates a similar model to Veruscript. Reviewers get a portion of the journal’s quarterly revenue, and can choose to pay it to themselves, put the money in a “waiver fund” to help future authors afford to be published, or contribute to their university’s open access fund.
“Rather than being a flat fee for service, it is more like a dividend, with reviewers and editors as ‘shareholders’ in the journal. The earnings can be variable, depending on the amount of revenue that the journal has earned in a particular quarter,” explains Dan Morgan, the publisher.
Offering reviewers money for something that is normally done voluntarily is, in a sense, a piece of research itself – a small-scale study in behavioural economics.
One of the risks, to judge from previous studies of workplace behaviour, is that offering a monetary reward for a piece of work can “crowd out” the intrinsic, non-financial incentives for doing something well. This is why payment by results can actually demotivate employees and yield worse results than a simple flat wage.
One 2014 study found no evidence of “crowding out” in peer review. Economists were paid $100 (£70) for review; while this sped up their responses, it did not have any impact on review quality.
“From our limited experience (eight months of publishing), the time taken has varied a lot among reviewers, so it [payment] has definitely not had a universal effect on timeliness,” says Morgan.
“But I have been particularly impressed by the quality of reviews and reviewer engagement. This could be down to our philosophy of sharing and solidarity with the research community in general, and not necessarily because of the amounts being earned,” he adds.
Also revealing is whether reviewers keep the money for themselves or donate it to other researchers.
“We think about 30 per cent [of peer reviewers] will take the monetary reward,” says Veruscript’s McIvor.
But at Collabra, not one reviewer has yet taken the money, says Morgan. They have all paid it forward to support other researchers.
There seems to be little expectation that paid peer review will sweep away the voluntary system in the near future. But as publishing changes, more and more peer reviewers may come to expect that their hours of scrutinising a manuscript will earn them more than just gratitude.