Is This Our First Reviewer Mill?

Paying peer-reviewers would only add costs, invite corruption, and drive out the altruists

[Note: The number of journals handled by msTracker and the number associated with IOS Press have both been corrected. I overstated both numbers in the original post.]

I recently received an email in which the sender complained that until reviewers are paid, the power inequities in scholarly publishing will remain unacceptable.

As a reviewer myself, and having been involved in peer-review systems for decades in one way or another, my experience is that reviewers have a few non-monetary reasons for participating in peer-review which are motivation enough:

  • Altruism — reviewers truly view it as a way to pay back or pay forward as a member of their intellectual community
  • Privilege — reviewers gain a privileged seat relative to emerging information, essentially become “an insider” when it comes to the science or scholarship they care about
  • Prestige — as I did above, mentioning that you’re a peer-reviewer grants a certain amount of prestige to your identity, and one that touches on the other two reasons

Of course, with reviewers more burdened than ever, and with editors-in-chief less able or inclined to reject without review in the quantity-obsessed OA era, reviewers are feeling disrespected and overworked.

So, why not pay them?

Here are a few a priori reasons against paying reviewers:

  • Paying reviewers would increase prices for journal publication through direct costs and the expense of managing and completing transactions
    • To cover overheads and profit, whatever a journal pays would likely be recouped at 3x that cost in order to cover overheads and ensure profit
  • It would create new forms of corruption (“reviewer mills”) as reviewers clamor to get paid and businesses spring up to leech money from grants, publishers, and customers
  • It would entice reviewers to accept invitations to review even if they don’t have the expertise or time to do a quality review
  • If a publisher pays for reviewers, it means paying for the review of rejected articles, which adds more costs to accepted articles in order to cover the costs for those reviewed and rejected
  • It would attract non-serious and/or opportunistic people to the reviewing of papers, people who are only in it for a quick buck
  • It would not improve reviews in any meaningful way

An aspiring reviewer mill may have just appeared in our midst in the form of ScholarPro Vetting, a site which promises to “reduce the challenge of finding peer reviewers for scholarly manuscripts while improving the quality and expediency of reviews received. Its use can attract better manuscripts and reviewers, thereby improving the reputation and profitability of journals using the service.”

Note the emphasis on increasing the profitability of journals using it.

The site boasts an in-house database of 200,000+ reviewers — a number that seems implausible and unwieldy, and the founder of the site won’t explain how that database was assembled.