When Will Peer Reviewers Finally Get Paid?

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Modern scientific publishing has a lot of problems. For starters, it perpetuates the "publish or perish" mindset, which all too often encourages quantity (more citations) over quality (better controlled research). The status quo also sees the latest research behind an exorbitant paywall, making most studies inaccessible to the general public and even a fair amount of scientists. The open-access movement sprung up to fix this injustice, but hundreds of open journals are now "predatory," publishing all sorts of poor quality research papers provided the authors pay the up-front costs. And this has fed a new problem: there's such a glut of research these days that many scientists can't keep up with their fields and have difficulties determining which studies merit their limited time and which do not.

Unfortunately, these are all multifaceted problems with no easy fixes. There's another problem, however, which is easily remedied and could improve the quality of published research. Right now, the overwhelming majority of peer reviewers, the scientists who scrutinize the latest studies, aren't paid for their labor. This is completely ridiculous. Peer review may be the most important part of the scientific enterprise, and it is not incentivized monetarily.

According to one study, the free labor scientists provide for academic journals is worth as much as $2.57 billion each year. Considering that scientists and their institutions are making such a generous donation of time to publishers, one might think that publishers would return the favor with lower costs to access the latest research. But no, Elsevier, a behemoth amongst publishing companies, maintains margins of nearly 37% in the scientific, technical, and medical sector. In 2017, that translated to $1.23 billion in profit on revenues of $3.35 billion.

Despite this unmistakable inequity, many scientists see peer review as an obligation to science and view recognition in journals as enough reward for their work. Mick Watson, a professor of bioinformatics at the University of Edinburgh thinks this is naive, however.

"Here is a key point: I could never write another peer review for the rest of my career and my career would not suffer. Not one bit," he wrote on his blog.

He also insists that many more scientists, especially overworked, underpaid postdocs and early career researchers, would be encouraged to participate in peer review if they were economically incentivized to do so.

"Why should they do something for free, often for profit-making organizations, when it doesn’t affect their career prospects one tiny bit? The answer is simple: they shouldn’t."

Additional reviewers would undoubtedly lessen the burden on the shrinking number of workhorse peer reviewers, who review as many as a dozen papers each month, and potentially lead to a higher level of scrutiny, translating in turn to fewer poor quality papers sneaking into the scientific literature.

All of this is just speculation, of course, but the effects of paid peer review could be easily studied should publishing companies start to implement the practice.

Science is not an inherently commercial enterprise, but when the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge are making out like bandits, it's only fair that hard-working peer reviewers receive a portion of the haul.

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