Unpaid reviewing, community, and choice

August 29, 2017

Lots of discussion online lately about unpaid peer reviews and whether this indicates a “degraded sense of community” in academia, improper commoditization of the unwritten responsibilities of academics, or a sign that we should rethink incentives in academia. (NB: that’s my galloping sound-bite-ization of those three posts, which you should go read in full.)

Part of this “reviewers don’t get paid” thing is good, because it indicates that academics broadly are waking up to how badly they’ve been had by commercial publishers. It’s part of that necessary anger that Scott Aaronson wrote about back when. But I can also understand why people are pushing back and saying, “Oh, if you don’t review you’re not supporting the academic community that (in part) makes your career possible. We should all pitch in and do the work.” Until recently, there was no way to separate those two strands: in doing peer reviews (and editing, etc.), one was both supporting the community as a good citizen, and also, unavoidably, helping commercial publishers line their pockets. But now that previously single path has bifurcated (no, not that way). Now it’s possible to be a good citizen for the community by editing and reviewing for OA journals, and stick it to the barrier-based publishers by not editing and reviewing for them (here’s how to politely decline, and see more discussion here).

Here’s how jacked the situation is: if you edit or review for a barrier-based publisher whose journals you also subscribe to or otherwise pay for, then in effect you are paying them for the privilege of reviewing. Put like that, it sounds insane. In any normal transaction, I give you X and you give me Y in return, because we’ve jointly agreed that these things are of roughly equal worth. In barrier-based publishing, academics give publishers (1) their papers, which publishers then exert copyright over, (2) their effort as editors and reviewers, and (3) their money, in subscriptions or other access fees, individually or collectively as institutions. And publishers sell the work back to us, retaining the copyright, and reap massive profits. There is no part of that sequence where academics – and indeed humanity at large – are getting the upside of the deal. The publishers are running the table on us, because for a long time, there were no other options. That’s not true anymore.

In his post on community, Zen Faulkes wrote, “I think people are refusing to do reviews in part because they don’t feel connected to the academic community.” Possibly. But maybe people are refusing to do reviews because they’re tired of being had. Has anyone done any work that would allow us to test those hypotheses? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

TL;DR: The separation of community goals and corporate profits shouldn’t be a fine theoretical point of discussion. It should be what we lead with. Yes, I will support the academic community. No, I won’t donate my time and effort to rapacious barrier-based publishers. It’s possible to achieve both of those things at once. And we should.

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10 Responses to “Unpaid reviewing, community, and choice”

  1. Nathan Myers Says:

    Not to put too fine a point on it: anyone still reviewing for Elsevier or its ilk is not only choosing to be a chump, but, by not instead reviewing for open-access publications, is failing to participate with — indeed, betraying — their community of scientific peers.

    Much the same may be said of anyone preferring publication in journals held by Elsevier and its ilk, over publication in open-access journals when evaluating the work records of graduate students and other professors.

  2. protohedgehog Says:

    Good post. We expand on a lot of this here: https://f1000research.com/articles/6-1151/v1 As for motivations to review and why refusal rates seem to be going up, I was just reading some research about this last night, as one does. This is a nice place to start: https://researchintegrityjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s41073-017-0027-x

  3. zfaulkes Says:

    “(A)nyone still reviewing for Elsevier or its ilk is not only choosing to be a chump…”

    I’d argue that anyone SUBMITTING to them is a much, much bigger chump.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    No argument at all, there, Zen. If Matt didn’t make that point in the post, I think it’s because we take it as read.

  5. protohedgehog Says:

    Don’t forget with Elsevier you also lose the rights to your own work, implicitly and without your permission. http://www.nature.com/news/you-never-said-my-peer-review-was-confidential-scientist-challenges-publisher-1.21342


  6. I am tired of being had.

  7. coppenheim Says:

    Firstly in answer to protohedgehog: the law is clear. The reviewer retains copyright in their review, but grants an implicit licence to the publisher to reproduce it (for the author’s benefit). Any attempt by the publisher to claim copyright in the review is invalid unless the reviewer had agreed in writing to transfer copyright in the review to the publisher. I am not aware of any publisher that makes such a transfer demand, but refuse to write the review if they do so. Secondly, as a general point, why not demand payment (let’s say $500) for carrying out the review for any subscription-based or APC-charging journal?

  8. Marcin Says:

    @coppenheim,
    Springer and MDPI are treating reviewers already. Do not remember the deal for Springer, but several options were given to regular reviewers (including vouchers to Amazon or so, or APC discount). MDPI gives you a sizeable discount in APC for your next paper published with them.

  9. David Marjanović Says:

    Not to put too fine a point on it: anyone still reviewing for Elsevier or its ilk is not only choosing to be a chump, but, by not instead reviewing for open-access publications, is failing to participate with — indeed, betraying — their community of scientific peers.

    “By not instead”???

    Please explain to me how you think this works. Open-access journals don’t know what other invitations for review you’ve received when they send you theirs.

  10. Kevin J. Black, M.D. Says:

    I agree with the sense of frustration with being had, and with your main point that community service can be separated from enriching for-profit journals.

    However, I am not persuaded that there is a black-and-white difference between giving my labor to a for-profit Elsevier subscription journal and a for-profit but open access Hindawi journal.


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