Is Paying Peer Reviewers an Ethical Practice?

Herbert N. Nigg, PhD,  Mountain Finch Post

This article was stimulated by a story in Science Insider.

It seems that Scientific Reports, a Nature Publishing Group (NPG) open access journal, offered authors an expedited review if they paid for the review. Mark Maslin at University College, London decided to resign his post as an editor of this journal. To quote Dr. Maslin:

“Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept.”

As presented, Scientific Reports was offering expedited service to authors who paid extra money for a review.

I agree with Dr. Maslin that this would create a two tier system—those with money and those with not enough money for the rapid review fees.

The article ends with another quote from Dr. Maslin: “Deep consideration and a well thought out review is much more important than its speed. I have had brilliant reviews which have considerably improved my papers and I really appreciated all the time taken.”

Let me get this straight. Maslin has the data that shows a long waiting time for a review results in a better review? Perhaps time improves a review, but I don’t know of any study that addressed this issue. What I do know from personal experience as an editor for over 30 years is that reviewers (including me) might leave a pending review on their desk until a persistent editor gets them to review it. Or perhaps one of two reviewers is very slow. Whatever the case, I have not found that reviews that took a long time were either “brilliant” as Maslin suggests or necessarily “well thought out”.

Nature Publishing Group is trying out a service called Rubrig for fast reviews. Rubrig reviews cost $750 for a review within three weeks. Rubrig is part of Research Square, based in Durham, North Carolina. NPG believes the reviews provided by Rubriq come up to NPG peer review standards. Who gets the $750 is unclear.

There is another company, has vetted reviewers who provide reviews within 30 days of submission for $400 total cost. Each reviewer gets $100 so $200 goes to the company. publishes the study immediately online with open access once formatting is complete.

The commentators on the Science Insider article generally agreed with Dr. Maslin. That is, publishing is about money. Here is my personal experience with the money side of publishing.

The first thing to remember is that scientific publishing is dominated by large publishing companies and by publications of scientific societies. Independent publishers are kept out of the market in several ways. The most insidious is the whisper campaign about integrity, ethics, honesty and so forth. This is the sort of remark made in the discussion section of the Science Insider article, particularly in regard to money. So let’s discuss how much money is involved.

In one journal that I personally edited, the gross income was one million dollars. That’s not a typo. The journal was entirely supported by library subscriptions. When subscriptions dropped, the company raised the price to maintain more or less, one million dollars gross. The editors cost about $80,000 per year. Production costs were about $100,000 per year. That is a nifty net of $820,000 per year to go to the upkeep of offices in big cities, company “editor” salaries, trips to scientific meetings—you get the picture. That is one journal.

A new journal is exceedingly difficult to establish unless you are an established publisher. Established publishers bundle a new journal or a struggling journal with a successful journal with no increase in price for libraries. Librarians and publishers love the bundle. The “loss” of revenue is made up with advertising if possible. This practice buries the hook in librarians more deeply and the libraries pay for subscriptions year after year after year.

No wonder that the major publishers are billion dollar companies owned by investor groups.

The only people not paid for their work and their diligence in this publication system are the scientists who do the studies and the reviewers who provide peer reviews. But to Maslin and other commentators, money suggests some sort of bribery, a peer-review industrial complex, potential harm to the peer review process, unacceptable discrimination and on and on.

Scientists are supposed to be by the merits of their work. This has become twisted into judgement by the quality of the journals in which they publish, most often through the use of the Impact Factor. The impact factor is the lazy administrator’s way of judging scientists. It is an insidious form of discrimination. Nonetheless, in spite of general agreement that the Impact Factor doesn’t mean very much, scientists must consider it in publishing. Unfortunately, for a new journal, it takes about two years to establish an Impact Factor. So the Impact Factor has become another way for the major publishers to maintain their monopoly and tight control of scientific publishing.

We have already arrived at a monopolistic peer-review complex with control in the hands of big publishers as abetted and aided by all types of administrators who are either too lazy or too ignorant to judge the merits of a published scientific study.

Since Maslin and others believe that money leads to unethical behavior, all of the established publishers are unethical. I believe that unethical behavior occurs in the publishing world. The question is who has the greatest potential to scam the system?

Would a neurosurgeon earning $2 million per year be tempted toward unethical behavior by a $100,000 editor’s honorarium from a publisher? This is an actual situation.

Would a publishing company “editor” earning $200,000 (more or less) be unethical in decisions about a journal grossing $2 million, $10 million?

I think the answer is yes in both cases. It’s just too much money and too much money equals legalized piracy.

But there is the matter of reviewers. Is $100 per reviewer enough money to generate unethical behavior? Do you really think that a reviewer who has been instructed to review fairly and ethically, but quickly, would compromise their reputation for $100? Really? Would you compromise your reputation for $100?

There is certainly unethical behavior by scientists in their publications. If you don’t believe this go to Retraction Watch: .  This is different though, than a reviewer paid $100. Scientists are competing for pay increases, tenure, positions, grants, honors, patents and reputations. These are certainly worth more than $100 and some tempted scientists lose everything by cheating in the competitive scientific world.

The reason that the major publishers are against paid reviewers is cost. The publishers are making lots and lots of money. They do not want any additional costs regardless of the reason.

The people who do the work, who dig the ditch, who provide their expertise, deserve to be paid and not by increasing publishing costs. The publishers should look candidly at their costs and pay reviewers for their time and diligence without increasing publishing costs. Increased costs hold all scientists hostage to established publishers.

Or scientists can allow the establishment of independent publishing efforts that serve science and the scientific community in a fair and equitable way.

The present scientific publishing system is, in fact, a monopolistic peer review system for established publishers.

When you think about this situation, what do scientists really need, what does the “system” need for fair and equitable peer-reviewed publishing practices?

Scientists need a fair, ethical and rapid review of their manuscripts.

Scientists need immediate publication of their work after reviews and formatting.

A scientist’s work needs to be judged on its merits not by an artificial statistic.

A scientist should be able to download and read any other scientist’s work for free.

None of these items is provided by the present system.

Ethical, paid reviewers can provide the rapid reviews. Online publication with open access provides immediate publication and free access. Knowledgeable and ethical administrators negate the need for an artificial statistic.

In my opinion, paying reviewers is an ethical and necessary practice that leads to achievement of these goals.

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