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[ RESEARCH INTEGRITY ] March 14, 2023

Who pays the price for peer review?

Peer review plays an essential role in scholarly publishing, but the reviewers themselves are not paid - or consistently recognized - for their time and effort. While there are pros and cons to introducing transactional exchange into a system built on academic goodwill, many believe it’s time for an update.

Should publishers pay peer reviewers?

Calls to pay peer reviewers have grown louder in recent years as it has become more difficult to source academics able and willing to evaluate others’ work. 

According to Publons, journal editors had to invite an average of 1.9 individuals to get a completed review in 2013, a number that rose to 2.4 only five years later. Historically, peer review relies on an honor code in which researchers performed timely and meticulous reviews for their fellow academics with the understanding that others would do the same for them when they submit research.  But when scholars are becoming less willing to evaluate their peers, while still expecting others to review their research, is the system on the brink of collapse?


The fragile state of peer review and research integrity

With fewer academics volunteering to review, the peer review system is under immense strain. In 2020 alone, it was estimated that researchers globally spent the equivalent of more than 15,000 years on peer review. As technology helps researchers share their work faster and more widely than ever before, the imbalanced peer review workflows could slow scientific progress. 

As a reproducibility crisis rages on and cases of plagiarism, data fabrication, and more continue to make headlines, many are expressing valid concerns about the future of research integrity and the quality of scientific information. The rise of academic fraud and journal retractions reveal flaws in the current peer review process, as the pressure to publish outweighs the desire to deliver high-quality research. 

Something needs to change, but what? Could financial rewards be the perfect solution? Let the debate commence.


The great compensation debate

The debate around paid peer review is not a new one. In 2020, a researcher named James Heathers began the 450 movement, stating that $450 is an adequate fee for peer reviewers to charge publishers, even creating a sample contract approved by lawyers for researchers to use when negotiating with publishers.
Heathers maintains that his idea should not ruffle feathers: “I cannot express how incredibly uncontroversial it is to ask for money to perform skilled work.” Yet, this movement gave rise to a wave of different opinions from academics across our industry.


Those in favor


1. For the sake of time:

Peer review is a time consuming endeavor. For many academics, it takes time away from conducting research and making the discoveries that will further their career. Just as journal editors are compensated for their time, peer review needs to change in a way that supports the incomes and professional lives of its volunteers.


2. Fixing the peer review shortage: 

The only way to ease the strain on the current peer review system is to widen the pool of experts willing to conduct reviews. Compensation is a clear driving force, and will likely bring more professionals who typically cannot work for free to perform peer reviews.


3. Encouraging better quality reviews:

As retractions continue to rise, we need efficient and rigorous peer review now more than ever. By introducing a per-hour paid model, reviewers can spend more time on reviews to ensure that error-prone or low quality research does not slip through the cracks.


4. Journals can afford it:

A few large, commercial publishers and for-profit journals dominate the academic publishing industry and earn revenue from subscriptions, article processing charges, partnerships, and more. 


Those against


1.The growth of unethical behavior:

While ideally introducing the concept of compensation will lead to better reviews, it may also entice those looking to build extra income. Many individuals may be driven to volunteer to review articles on topics outside their areas of expertise, leading to poor evaluation and quality control.


2. It kills experimentation:

 If paid peer review gets introduced, the idea of reviewing for free will become more and more unappealing. This means experimentation with new forms of reviewing, like pre-prints and other early-stage research content would likely take a hit.


3. Costs would skyrocket:

Although many feel that large publishers can afford to pay reviewers, the reality is that many would raise their prices rather than pull from existing funds. This could wipe out the money that many journals, societies, and organizations use to invest in research and fund new discoveries. 


4. It damages inclusivity:

While the scholarly community looks to adopt new inclusive and equitable practices, paying peer reviewers may damage the progress we’ve made so far. If prices were customizable, large commercial publishers would likely obtain most of the high quality peer reviewers because they have the most money to spend on paying them, giving them an unfair advantage over smaller society journals. Even further, more money would flow to the Global North as more reviewers are from there, taking away funds that could be used to fund researchers from underrepresented backgrounds.



When it comes to paying peer reviewers, there are compelling arguments on both sides.

Yet perhaps at the core of this debate is a need for recognition, for which compensation may or may not play a role. Morressier is constantly innovating to create workflows that ensure better experiences, reputations, and successes for our users as we work to transform peer review for the better.


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