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Should we pay peer reviewers?

The peer review process is crucial for assessing the quality of submitted manuscripts. However, the process is time consuming and relies heavily on the sense of duty of scientists who want to improve the quality of research. Journals have noted that peer reviewers are becoming more and more difficult to recruit in recent years – a trend even before the flood of COVID-19-related submissions. In light of these concerns, a debate on the provocative question ‘Should peer reviewers be paid?’ took place at the Researcher to Reader conference, involving representatives from the publishing industry and the research community. Key highlights from the debate were summarised by Jeffrey Brainard in a recent article in Science, outlining the benefits and potential risks of introducing payment for peer reviewers.

When arguing for paying peer reviewers, the panel drew attention to the standard practice in other sectors of paying for skilled labour. Proponents also noted that the current peer review process has flaws such as frequent delays in receiving reviewer reports and, on occasions, a lack of provision of meaningful feedback – both issues may be improved by paying peer reviewers.

The panel also outlined several arguments against paying peer reviewers. A key issue raised was the potential knock-on effect on publishing costs. For each manuscript accepted there are a sizeable proportion that are not. Peer reviewers for rejected manuscripts would still need payment, and these additional costs would need to be recouped and possibly added to article processing charges for accepted manuscripts. The potential costs of publication might mean that fewer papers are submitted. Additionally, introduction of payment has the potential to incentivise unethical behaviour as journals could favour reviewers who are more likely to accept an article, in an effort to keep peer review costs down.

Introduction of payment has the potential to incentivise unethical behaviour as journals could favour reviewers who are more likely to accept an article.

An additional issue raised was that financial payment for peer reviewing may not be a high priority for researchers, who often place a greater value on non-financial rewards and recognition in their field. A 2018 Publons survey supports this argument, finding that cash incentives only ranked 6th in a list of 8 initiatives that would make researchers more likely to participate in peer review.

Following the debate, a straw poll of 50 audience members recorded just 16% for paying peer reviewers versus 84% against. Though the debate audience was swayed by the arguments against paying peer reviewers, whether journals and researchers across the wider community would draw the same conclusion remains to be seen. Regardless, it is important that journals and institutions consider the best approaches for rewarding thorough peer review, to help combat ‘reviewer fatigue’ and ensure scientific publications of the highest quality.

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What do you think – should journals pay peer reviewers?

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