Reviewers should (also) be paid by publishers

Stephen Heard touched on a controversial issue in his latest blog post: Can we stop saying reviewers are unpaid? This (contrarian?) point of view resulted in some push-back in the comments, and on other blogs (e.g. Let’s keep saying it, and say it louder: REVIEWERS ARE UNPAID by Mick Watson). I agree with most of Stephen Heard’s points, and also with his updated point “publishers (mostly) don’t pay for reviews”. Where I disagree with him (there has to be at least one disagreement, because why otherwise waste digital bandwidth on writing this?), is that “reviewers are (mostly) paid” is actually an important admission.

I struggled to find a useful analogy to explain my unease with his admission, and it suddenly dawned on me. Several years ago, I read a blog post by Alex Bond on Why volunteer field techs are a bad idea. I hope I summarize their (further developed with Auriel Fournier in a published opinion piece that received a lot of pushback) arguments correctly with these points:

  • it is an essential part of the research process, so it should be rewarded accordingly;
  • not paying reduces the field tech’s value, and thus “the professionalism of science as a whole”;
  • prevents underprivileged scientists from participating;
  • financial restrictions, tradition, and CV building for the field techs are not good enough justifications in light of these criticisms.
The analogy with peer review is immediately obvious in the first line: it is an essential part of the scientific process, so it should be rewarded. Stephen Heard’s argument is that reviewers are being rewarded (paid). What the analogy with volunteer field techs exposes, though, is that it is important to look at who benefits from the work. In the field tech case, it is first the scientist who got funding for the study that benefits from the volunteer work, and then in a second step science as a whole. In the peer review case, what I think Stephen Heard overlooks is that publishers benefit first, and science as a whole only in a second step. 

And this benefit to publishers is important. A recent Science paper by Gretchen Vogel and Kai Kupferschmidt report on a quick back-of-the-envelop type of calculation:
“Collectively, the world’s academic libraries pay some €7.6 billion in subscription fees for access to between 1.5 million and 2 million new papers annually, or between €3800 and €5000 per paper, according to an estimate by the Max Planck Society.”
While the net benefit to the publishers will be lower, of course, nobody can argue that publishers do not benefit directly from the reviewers. And publishers do not pay reviewers, directly or indirectly. Yes, society as whole pays scientists partly for their many contributions, but eliminating the publishers from that argument is wrong. If we make the analogy with the volunteer field tech case again, that would be similar to imagining a PI flush with money saying that she will not pay her field tech because the “pay” provided by the experience will improve his CV and his changes for a scholarship or job. Or more succinctly: Volunteer field techs are (mostly) paid.

If that above scenario raises some problems, then arguing that reviewers are (mostly) paid, is not the “right” statement to ponder. If you agree that in the above scenario that the field tech should receive monetary compensation for his contribution (or be paid) from the PI, and that that is the important debate, then I think that “reviewers should (also) be paid by publishers” is the more important debate to have.

Karl Cottenie
Associate Professor in Community Ecology

I am a community ecologist with a broad interest in data analysis.