It is time to start paying peer reviewers

As refereeing requests multiply, the demands on willing academics’ time are becoming unsustainable, says Adrian Furnham

October 26, 2021
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Last month, I was asked to review 53 papers. Assuming each took three hours to complete, accepting these requests would have absorbed more than 150 hours, or nearly 19 eight-hour days.

This volume of requests is now standard. It reflects the extraordinary explosion in the number of academic journals over the past two decades – in response to the central role that publications play in academic assessment. Most editors of respectable journals want at least two experts – and ideally four – to review any given paper. As such, they struggle to find good reviewers and often turn to highly productive academics, such as myself, who can be trusted to turn around reviews within a reasonable time frame.

On average, I get 10 to 20 invitations a week, many from serious journals. I could say “no” to the lot, but I have a policy of reviewing twice as many papers as I submit. As I’ve published some 1,200 peer-reviewed articles across economics, education, psychology, psychiatry and sociology (attracting accusations of waspish dilettantism, carpet-bombing and worse), the commitment equates to a lot of peer reviewing. I guess I do one or two every week.

But the requests just keep growing. And my conservative estimate of three hours a paper does not always apply: some reviewers take it upon themselves to offer a line-by-line critique of a paper. I, like other authors, have received upwards of 20 pages of nitpicking: longer than the papers themselves, in some cases.

The difficulty of finding sufficient reviewers has led many journals to require authors to suggest their own, based on their knowledge of the field. Of course, the temptation is to list a few sympathetic friends, who may join together in a supportive cabal: I positively review your papers, and you do the same for mine.

These inherent flaws in peer review are becoming harder to ignore. And the answer would seem obvious: professionalise the process by paying reviewers for their time. After all, most editors get paid, albeit often pitifully given their expertise, and for-profit journals generate handsome returns for their publishers.

In some journals – predictably, in business and economics – reviewing fees in excess of $100 (£72) are being levied. Paying the people who do the reviewing would appear the next logical step.

However, would paying reviewers really make the whole enterprise more successful? Much would depend on the amount paid and whether it would be conditional on anything, such as paper length or speed of response. Imagine the kerfuffle if reviewers were paid by the length of their review, or its positive or negative tone.

Equally, remuneration could lead to some unexpected benefits. For instance, editors are usually highly respectful of their volunteer reviewers and feel unable to stand up to petty, rude and clearly wrong comments. Paying the reviewers could make it easier to hold them to higher standards.

Many of my colleagues disagree, however. One worries that some academics would specialise as reviewers and become “the data analysis police”, leading them to “feel superior to everyone else” and rate down certain types of research that did not conform to their worldviews. Another colleague fears that payment would mean more reviewers being chosen on account of “economic needs, not by expertise”.

Maybe we need to become more imaginative. One colleague’s suggestion is to charge authors $500 for each manuscript submission, which would be distributed mainly to the reviewers. If the manuscript were accepted for publication, the $500 would be returned to the author: that would discourage authors from submitting papers that were bound to be rejected, thereby lessening the reviewing load on the profession. But the journal would still pay the reviewers so as not to incentivise rejections. It would also push editors to be more selective about what they send out for review.

Another idea is to make peer review mandatory for all academics, with universities taking it into consideration in annual evaluations. How that would be policed is difficult to determine, however.

Alternatively, reviewers could be graded by editors and authors on simple criteria, such as the clarity and helpfulness of their reviews. That is starting to happen with the peer review tracking service Publons, which is used by a reported 200,000 academics worldwide. Some journals also publish end-of-year lists of reviewers and even nominate their “top” reviewer. This seems like a good idea and could be matched with some monetary award.

Perhaps the solution to the pressure on reviewers lies with retired academics, who might appreciate the opportunity to supplement their pensions if peer review were paid. However, relying on old-timers would not be ideal given that their knowledge of their field may no longer be up to date. It could hold back innovative papers.

Paying for peer review may even diminish the attraction of doing it for some scholars, who cherish academia’s collegiate ethos. It would certainly add new costs into the system. But since I began writing this article, I have already politely declined yet another invitation to review. Journals’ reliance on academics’ willingness to sacrifice ever more of their time for free seems increasingly unsustainable.

Adrian Furnham is an adjunct professor in psychology at the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo and a former professor of psychology at UCL.

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Reader's comments (1)

Given that there are only 20-25 working days in a month, 30 if you include weekend. And given that you probably have papers of your own to write, classes to prepare and teach, students to supervise and committee work to do, is there really an amount of money that would convince you to review these 53 papers, that would take 2/3 of your time, even if you worked 7 days a week, especially as you are probably already paid enough for a fairly comfortable life. Even if you paid me €100 a paper, meaning an extra €5300 a month, that wouldn't matter, as my life does not contain 150 spare hours.