Saturday, November 29, 2014

Open Access, tired reviewers, and the free market: time for reviewer credit?

There is an editorial in Nature this week which has attracted a lot of criticism on the internet. "Open access is tiring out peer reviewers" by Dr. Martijn Arns suggests that a rise in scientific publications is due to increased numbers of manuscript submissions to open-access journals, and that this is placing increased pressure on peer-reviewers.

Whether or not Dr. Arns is correct about open access, it is fair to say that the number of publications is increasing. Welcome to the world of 'publish-or-perish', where even undergraduates are pressured to have maybe one paper under their belt in order to be competitive for grad school places. An increase in submissions is inevitable under these conditions. But this is not what I am writing about here.

Dr Arns complains that reviewers are "overworked and fatigued" and suggests that "quality will suffer — across the board — unless something is done". Under the free market system, this translates to increased demand for the commodity that is academic reviewers. This should consequently be reflected by an increase in price for that commodity, leading us to the question:

Would reviewers be less "tired" if journals started properly compensating them?

The subject of paid reviewers is controversial, and I will not go over the pros and cons here. Personally, I believe that academia is best served by a spirit of collegiality where review is freely provided to fellow researchers. At the same time, in a world where academics are being financially squeezed from all sides, it is immoral (not to mention poor business practice) to simply give away one of our most marketable skills to massive-profit-making multinational publishing houses.

Some researchers have said that they will simply refuse to perform free reviews for profit-making journals, but this is not an option for early-career scientists, who need to publish and review for these "prestigious" journals as they are held in higher esteem by employers and tenure boards.

Still, in this world of corporate universities, I wonder how long it will be before college CEOs stop allowing their paid professors to simply give their time away in free consultancy for multinational publishing corporations. If this was to happen, I am not sure how much of a backlash there would be from already overworked professors.

But how could reviewers be compensated for their work? Direct financial compensation comes with its own problems, and is never going to happen anyway; however, I think that "journal credit" for reviews is a good compromise. I have received this kind of compensation for two of the reviews that I have conducted, in the form of 12 months free online access to an otherwise subscription-based journal.

I suggest that a widening of this system to the university level would be a fair form of reviewer compensation: for each review, the reviewer's institutional library would receive one credit point from the publishing house, which could then be used to offset journal subscription costs. This would incentivize peer review for the reviewer and parent institution, and would cost little for the publishers. Universities with large research programs would probably attract more peer review "business" and could then either keep library costs down, or subscribe to more journals. An increase in journal subscriptions would benefit publishers, and authors whose work is published in journals with increased readership. Reviewers would at least feel like they got something back for their labor, and maybe would be held in greater esteem by their institutions.

I have not seen this idea suggested elsewhere, so I decided to throw it out here. My 2 cents.

1 comment:

  1. [reposted from facebook]: I particularly like the reviewer-compensation model used by PeerJ: any reviewer that returns a review within a set period of time (1 week I think) receives a fee waiver coupon for a future submission to PeerJ. I already took advantage of this for one review, and now just need to think of an appropriate in prep study for PeerJ.

    As brought up in the facebook thread, this does restrict you to submitting to that journal (but then of course, you can make the same argument about the free subscription). Either way, I think both of these are very reasonable incentives and I for one would be more inclined to review for (and submit to) journals that used these sorts of incentives.