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Paying for Peer Reviews is a Bad Idea

Every now and then one comes across the idea that academics should be paid for doing peer reviews. The reasoning goes usually something like this — peer reviewing takes up a fair amount of an academic researcher’s time; therefore, paying for peer reviews would be fair and could help particularly younger researchers who have low income and little job security. Yet, paying for peer reviews is a pretty bad idea in practice.

An easy objection to the idea of paid reviewing is that by doing peer reviews you ‘pay’ for others to review your papers. Every time you submit your paper to a peer-reviewed journal or conference, you put the burden on others to review your paper — so it’s only fair that you review theirs. However, economists and management scholars do not usually have a problem with replacing a non-monetary form exchange with monetary transactions and markets, because it can make those exchanges more efficient. So, why do I think that paying for peer reviews is a bad idea? To understand this, let us look into how peer reviewing works as a fundamental part of academic knowledge creation.

Paying for peer reviews would mean replacing generalized reciprocity as the foundation of peer-reviewed publishing with transactions. The current system is based on reciprocity that entails a culture in which ‘I review your paper now, because someone else from the community will review my paper later’. By contrast, a transactional culture can be described by an attitude in which ‘I review this paper if the immediate payoff is bigger than any alternative way of using my time’. In short, replacing generalized reciprocity with transactional foundations could motivate dramatically different behavior with respect to peer reviewing.

Who would pay for the reviewers? While this is an important question, it is not the biggest problem with the idea of paid reviewing. There are at least three parties who could pick up the bill: authors, their employers (including funding agencies), and publishers. Requiring authors to pay for reviewers would mean shifting money from a pocket to another, and losing some of it on the way due to additional bureaucracy required for managing transactions, whereas publishers would undoubtedly try recover the cost of paying for reviewers by increasing prices that are mostly charged from academic employers. Therefore, it seems that the academic employers would have to fund the paid reviewing work. This could conceivably work. However, the system would easily give an advantage to better-funded researchers who would not have to ration their submissions due the charges. In open access publishing, submission fees and article processing charges would have to go substantially up.

Who would be interested in doing paid reviewing? If peer reviewing is turned into transactions, this will gradually replace the collegial responsibility to do reviews with a simple calculation: is my time worth it? A major problem with this is that more experienced scholars are on average more capable reviewers, but they also have on average higher salaries, which means that payments might often not meet their reservation wage. As a result, more reviewing would be done by junior scholars, since rejecting a review request would become hardly more than turning down an uninteresting job offer.

What would happen to the quality of reviews? In addition to changes to the reviewer pool, the transactional nature of reviewing could impact the quality of reviews even more directly. Reviewers could start rationing their efforts with respect to how many hours spent on the submission is ‘enough’ given the payment. While each of us probably holds some sort of a rule of thumb regarding how much effort per submission is enough in the current system, a payment would draw attention further away from review quality to hours worked as the yardstick of good enough job.

How to deal with transaction costs? What if the quality of a submitted review report is subpar or the report is late — will the reviewer still be paid for it? Who would manage the payments and provide a dispute resolution service? How would the fees be set? Transactions come with transactions costs that are largely absent in the current system based on generalized reciprocity. An intriguing solution to dealing with transaction costs would be to turn peer reviewing into a market.

Let’s imagine a market for academic reviews…

In the market for academic reviews, editors would offer papers to be reviewed while reviewers would sign up to do reviews for a price that is negotiated per transaction, for instance, for a maximum number of review rounds and a minimum number of report pages per round. While the quality of reviews can sometimes be hit-and-miss in the current system, I doubt the Procrustean bed that the market would impose on reviewing work to make it commensurable would make the quality any better.

At the same time, a market-based system could have certain advantages. To begin with, it would be technologically trivial to implement a labor platform to support the market for academic peer reviews. The market could then remove the editorial burden of searching for reviewers and the prices for reviewing in different fields and outlets could be settled by the market. Interestingly, the market could also offer a new kind of selection criteria for papers that eventually get published — if nobody is interested in reviewing a submission based on its abstract, it is probably not worth publishing.

The above speculations should be enough to give an idea of the changes that turning peer reviewing into a form of gig work could entail. Note, I intentionally use the word ‘speculations’ for we cannot know for sure what would happen if reviewing would suddenly turn into paid work. However, I am sure that gradually replacing generalized reciprocity with transactions as the foundation of peer-reviewed publishing would entail substantial changes to the system. My opinion is that these changes would be more likely detrimental than beneficial to the academia and, by implication, to academics. Yet, I am happy to be proven wrong — if you know about experiments or even entire academic fields that do pay for peer reviews, I am interested to learn about those.

Entrepreneur, MIS scholar and thinker with thirty years of experience in digital technology — www.aleksi.info