Should journals pay for peer review work?

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to be a peer reviewer of a Spanish journal in category Q1. This is owned by a commercial academic publisher and charges the authors 835€ for publishing, adducing that this is the cost of translation and layout of the article. My response to the invitation was my rate fee proposal for this type of assignment.

Before we dive in, let us contextualize a bit. Within the investigative exercise, the publication of the research results is contemplated -which extends to the pressure of “publish or perish”- and this is usually done frequently through academic articles published in journals or scientific magazines, which were previously done on paper, but today almost everything is digital. If we enter this tangled jungle, we find three types of journals:

The types of journals

The first we find are those usually published by universities, research centers, or research associations. These are authentic open access. I emphasize “authentic” as there are no charges for authors to publish or readers for downloading articles, for this reason, they are also called diamond open access or platinum open access. All production costs are assumed by the university or research center, which within its operating budget allocates a portion for this. Journals of this type do not usually appear in the WOS or SCOPUS rankings, and if they do, they are few in Q1 and Q2.

Second, those published by commercial academic publishers, the largest being Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, SAGE Publications, Springer, Wiley, but there are many more, medium, and small. They are for-profit companies, that is, they must generate profits or benefits to their owners. Initially, and still today, these publishers established a payment for downloads for readers, that is, the business model focused on the retail sale of articles at prices that researchers agree are exaggeratedly high (where the authors do not receive revenues or royalties for such sales and lose their copyright). Also, the wholesale of these items directly to universities and research centers who must pay astronomical amounts to subscribe to the databases of these publishers so that their staff can have access. Finally, a third business model that emerged a few years ago in the face of the open access boom, the gold open access, also known as “open access”. This consists in that the authors assumes the costs for the publication, known as APC (Article Processing Charges) under reasons such as style correction, layout or even translation to another language, and the article once published is accessible to readers without cost. The amounts charged are absurdly high, in the case I referred to at the beginning it was 835€, but there are many higher, even reaching 9,500€. On the other hand, journals of this type are those that tend to appear very frequently as Q1 and Q2 in WOS or SCOPUS.

Such business models have been highly questioned because of the high prices charged and led to the birth of Sci-Hub that uses access to legal credentials to enter such databases, extract the article and save it in its own database from where it is pulled when subsequently consulted. Also, the cancellation of several US and European universities and research centers of the subscriptions to these databases (for reasons such as: excessively paying for having access to what their researchers publish, budget reorganization, and onerous contract…) and bet that the publication is made in authentic open access journals. Interesting initiatives have arisen around this, such as Open Research Europe, a platform sponsored by the European Union for the rapid publication and non-anonymous peer review of the research results funded by Horizon2020, at zero cost per publication and zero cost per access.

The third type of journal is the predator journals, published by “academic” editorials that guarantee an extremely fast publication, in a matter of weeks (in the first two types of journals it can take six months to two years). In this version of the gold open access business model, it is openly recognized that authors pay to publish, and the APCs are quite low compared to the previous ones, for example, 250€, and 420€ (they even offer discounts and prices can be negotiable), but this is not reported on their websites, and the author finds out during the process. In these, there is no editorial work beyond the layout of the article, and it has free availability to the reader. To operate, they usually have names remarkably like journals located in Q1 and Q2 in WOS or SCOPUS, but they will hardly enter these rankings and will surely be on the Beall’s List. Why are they strongly questioned? Mainly, because despite what they appear to be, the truth is that there is no peer review or revision work.

The peer review

With this I return to history. A fundamental characteristic of the process of publishing articles in journals of the first and second type is the work of the peer review. This consists in that once the article is received and if it passes the filter of the journal editor, it is usually sent to two researchers in the area (there may be more, in my case I have had up to five reviewers) selected by the journal (or occasionally suggested by the author) so that they read it, make their assessment and deliver a report with their opinion of whether it is publishable, if it is necessary to make changes or if it is rejected. To carry out this process, the journal usually grants from fifteen days to a month (on exception it can be more), as well as, it is anonymous, the author does not know who his/her reviewers were and vice versa, the reviewers do not know who the authors are. Although this validation process is questioned (e.g., plagiarism, denigration of the article, and asking to be cited if they are not doing so…), to date no other way to validate scientific production has been developed. Now, understandably this stage takes time, first by finding a reviewer to accept and then by waiting for their concept, the publication of an article is a slow process.

This process also has another characteristic, it is free, that is, researchers donate their time in reviewing the articles that come to them from the different journals that contact them. If they accept the assignment, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete, depending on the complexity of the text and the degree of commitment of the reviewer (including their time). Once the report is completed and delivered, the reviewers only receive a thank you email (which serves to feed their records in Publons), but rarely are they paid for such work . In fact, when the journal’s mail arrives with the proposal, this aspect is never mentioned, it is taken for granted, because it is standardized, naturalized, and appropriated by researchers, that it is unpaid work.

Analyzing perspectives

Let us see this perspective, to train as a researcher, around 90,000€ is invested, a little more or a little less: payment of master’s and doctorate fees, research stays, specific courses, among other expenses, so it is always necessary to resort to scholarships that allow these costs to be subsidized. On the other hand, it is impossible to quantify the years it takes since it is not only the training, but the investigative work itself, the writing of the articles, and the modifications to them when the concept of the peer reviewers arrives. All this endorses or supports the peer review task, the knowledge and expertise that is acquired in the field that allows issuing an anonymous and free evaluative concept of the research of others.

Now let us see another perspective, the large commercial academic publishers are also news for the income or profits they generate. For example, RELX, the company that owns Elsevier that publishes around 2,600 journals, in 2019 published around 496,000 articles in gold open access mode and obtained profits for 8,260,000,000€  ($9.8 billion USD) where 34% was contributed by the publisher. For its part, informs the company that owns Taylor & Francis, in that same year obtained profits for 3,034,000,000€ ($3.6 billion USD), and also medium and small publishers that, although they do not bill these astronomical amounts, they do see what is replicated prior to its scale. Hence, in part, other commercial academic publishers have also proliferated, as well as the rise of predatory “academic” publishers.

If we analyze it in detail, scientific publication for profit is a bargain. There are no fees for inputs (authors do not receive payment for publishing their articles), authors must pay for publishing (it is assumed that research funds received for the project from which the article results covers this or at least part and the rest is out of pocket) or readers must pay to download (in this case, copyright is transferred to the publisher, authors cannot freely disclose the full text of their article on public networks and if the they do, he/she will receive an order from the publisher to remove it because it infringes copyright),  and there is no fee for the work of the peer review (since this work is normalized, it does not generate payment of fees, the review and approval process of the articles has a zero cost). Added to the above are the low operating costs and the high prices charged.

Taking a position

So here I go to my starting point.  When I received the proposal to peer review this Spanish Q1 journal in the field of Communication in WOS and SCOPUS, I saw that it was owned by a medium-sized commercial academic publisher and that it charges 835€ from APC to the authors for gold open access (claiming translation and layout costs). So, my response was to reject the task arguing that I did so because the payment of fees for the work was not mentioned. Incidentally, I sent them my proposal of fees for reviewing the article and to generate the report and covered a possible second review if the first report dictated modifications.

I did not expect a response from the editor of this journal, however, it came, stating that this was the first time they had received such a response and that they would remove me from their database of possible peer reviewers since they did not have the policy of pay for this work. To this message I replied that although it could be the first time (although, I doubt it), I was sure they would continue to receive responses like mine and with a fee proposal. This given that they charged APC to the authors, and that per policy I was to no longer donate my time to journals that were profiting from my work as a reviewer without me receiving a payment for it.

This leads us to another big question, how much to charge for our peer review work? First, this goes into deciding who to send the collection of fees to once a proposal arrives. In my case, when a journal contacts me, the first thing I verify is that I do not charge for publishing or downloading the article, if so, then I do not charge for being a peer reviewer because there is simply no profit. If the journal charges APC or it charges for downloads, then yes, the peer review work must be paid, and I will send you my collection of fees when I receive a proposal. I will also refuse to do the review unless I am paid for the work.  It is necessary to stop normalizing and naturalizing that the peer review has zero cost, and it discriminates when the journal publisher profits from this work or when it does not. Time and knowledge are worth it.

Now, how much to charge? This is perhaps the most difficult, how much is my knowledge worth what is useful for me to perform the task? For example, James Heathers proposes to charge $450 USD (340€) indiscriminately for such work, which in turn has led to the 450 Movement. In my case, I see how much the journal is charging authors or readers. In the present case, when collecting 835€ from APC, I asked for 100€ in fees and if the journal charges more, then my rate is increased. It is highly likely that the journal will respond that it does not pay, so for now such a request is still symbolic, however, what if every day more researchers refuse to donate their time as peer reviewers of journals of this type? In fact, it is not just a few editors who comment that it is increasingly difficult to find peer reviewers, among other reasons, due to non-payment for such work.

As an anecdote, in all the time that I have been agreeing to peer review, only one journal that is published by a Colombian university in authentic open access and that is not in the WOS or SCOPUS ranking, offered to pay me 36€ for the review work. The payment was fulfilled when I delivered my report. So, if this university can pay me, then those who belong to for-profit academic publishers can too.

The controversy is served

Of course, the controversy is served, for example, Alison Mudditt, CEO of PloS and previously vice president of SAGE Publications, states what would be wrong to pay for the work of peer review because it is very difficult to determine a fee for this, it is a burden for publishers to create a system to make payments, the costs for APC and subscription to databases will increase, having to pay for a rejected article that therefore APC will not pay for, therefore there is no income, in addition to ethical dilemmas and the deepening of inequalities in research systems. From her perspective, she is suggested that the solution is to reject the invitations to be a peer reviewer of this type of journals as well as to not propose articles to them so that there is no payment to APC or charges for downloads. On the other hand, instead of payments in money, reviewers are rewarded with other currencies from the academic world through reputation, recognition, and success. With respect to this last part, some journals of this type and the first have begun to make public on their websites the list of reviewers who participated in each issue (recognition, but also transparency of editorial processes).

A similar line follows Jeffrey Brainard, one of the editors of Science, although he also addresses other views, he mentions that the “Taylor & Francis Group, a small selection of journals focused on pharmaceutical development pay peer reviewers for accelerated reviews,” as well highlighting other voices by mentioning that “it is very hard to believe that companies who manage more than a billion yearly downloads [of scholarly articles] will somehow find it impossible to do contract and payment management” for this work, as well as “a contract which provides an explicit exchange of value provides much needed certainty around the time frame, the quality, and the predictability of the review received.”

As a final reflection, although it is true that as a reviewer these payments in kind mentioned by Mudditt are stimulating, I also maintain my desire to receive payment for my peer review work when requested by journals that belong to for-profit academic publishers.  I do not consider it to be something nefarious or unethical, on the contrary, fair, and enforceable, as well as something that should be normalized. In the meantime, I will continue to refuse to do this work for free. Academic altruism is only applicable when the journal is authentic open access.

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