How can we make academic publishing better? I was thinking a bit about this earlier in the week, prompted by the journal horror stories recounted on Daily Nous and the thread about paying peer reviewers $450 a pop on Hacker News.
I think I have a better idea than paying per review: offer sabbaticals for academics to spend a chunk of their time reviewing and the rest of their time however they want. Fund reviewers, not reviews.
Problems with Pay-Per-Review
Many of academic publishing’s problems come down to lack of incentives for reviewers to (1) accept review requests, (2) do a good job on their reviews, and (3) complete their reviews quickly.
Paying reviewers might help with each of these, assuming that one gets paid less for late or poor reviews. But overall I don’t think it’s a good idea.
One potential problem: where will the money come from?
Of course Elsevier and Springer and the like make absurd profits that they could put to good use by improving their product and compensating their laborers. But... well, let’s just say I’m not sanguine about that. I suppose they could just raise their prices to keep up their profits, but even that wouldn’t be easy to convince them to do. What’s in it for them?
In any case, the bigger issue here is that journals should be free to read and publish in, but without a serious funding effort such journals will not be able to pay their reviewers. And if the non-free journals start paying their reviewers, the free journals will have an even harder time finding reviewers than they already do, which will make them less attractive to submit to, which will eventually make them less prestigious, which will make them even less attractive to submit to, and so on. This would be bad.
I don’t think we should reject the proposal on this basis, though. We just have to add to it a requirement for a serious funding effort on behalf of the free and open journals. It would be better to significantly improve academic publishing without needing a serious funding effort, but why think that’s possible? Until someone suggests a cheaper alternative, priceyness should not knock the pay-reviewers-and-fund-open-journals proposal out of the running.
The other problem, though, is worse: money isn’t that great of an incentive for getting academics to review.
If you ask the declining reviewers why they decline, the slow reviewers why they’re slow, and the poor reviewers why they didn’t do a better job, I’d bet they wouldn’t say “You get what you pay for.” They’d say they didn’t have enough time.
That might be bullshit in many cases, and weak enough bullshit for $450 to cut through in some. But in many other cases—I’d expect most—it isn’t. Getting an extra $450 isn’t going let you spend less time teaching or completing your administrative duties, and it shouldn’t get you to spend less time on your own research, at least if you don’t yet have tenure. So it’s only good motivation for those who value whatever non-work time they have at less than $450/(however many hours they take per review). I think this will not that big of a group, especially when intersected with those who get the most review requests.
A high enough price could overcome this. Pay someone enough to retire on and they’ll do the review on time. But I suspect that any feasible price range will not improve things much.
I also worry that in some cases paying for a timely review might make things worse. Suppose you’re a well-enough-paid academic with lots of time commitments. You accept a review request with the understanding that you get paid if you get it done within 4 weeks, but not otherwise. But as the weeks pass and obligations accumulate, you find yourself thinking “$450 would be nice, but I’m just too busy for it to be worth it. I’ll just finish that review next month and not get paid.” And then you might not feel so bad about turning in a late review, since it feels to you like you’ve shouldered some of the cost yourself and because the contract allows you to submit late if you’re willing to forgo the $450. On top of that there’s now no longer any incentive to get the late review done quickly or well, since they’re already not paying you. And I doubt imposing fines for late reviews would fly. It’d just encourage a lot more declining and hasty/sloppy reviewing.
So pay-per-review seems unlikely to improve things much, even if you can get the money for it.
An Alternative: Reviewer Sabbaticals
What’s keeping academics from reviewing quickly enough, well enough, and, well, enough is that they don’t have the time. So why not pay them with time? Give them a reviewer sabbatical.
Suppose some time-pressured academics are offered not to be paid per review on top of their other duties, but are instead given a semester-long sabbatical to work on whatever they want with no teaching or administrative duties, so long as they accept ~2 review requests per week and do the reviews quickly (like within a week or two) and well. Many would jump at the chance.
And this would do a lot of good. If there are 10 such sabbatical-reviewers in a 15-week semester, that’s ~30 reviews each, so ~300 good, very quick reviews in a semester, and ~600 in the year. This would at least put a dent in philosophy’s reviewing needs,
“But who is gonna pay for it? How are the reviewers picked? Are researchers too specialized for there to be 30 submissions in a semester that they can competently review? Would being a sabbatical reviewer give one too much power in shaping a subfield?”
All good questions. Here are some first thoughts.
Paying with time, as I’m proposing, is really just another way of paying with money, since someone needs to pay the reviewer’s salary (or at least a significant chunk of it) while they’re on their reviewer sabbatical. So where does that money come from?
Not the for-profit publishers, I assume. And I’d rather the sabbaticals not come from them anyways, since they’d probably require you to review only for their own journals. Perhaps the publishers can be required to contribute to whoever else is paying, though, at least if they want to get reviews from the quick reviewing sabbaticalists.
Universities might be a better option. I’d think they care somewhat about improving academic research and the publishing process, so if they could be convinced that giving out reviewer sabbaticals would do that, perhaps they could be tempted. Especially if they’re also convinced that competitor universities will do the same.
But even if this could happen it’d probably be only the rich universities that would be able to do it, which is not ideal for various reasons. It would also be difficult for universities to coordinate about various aspects of this that we’d like to be coordinated.
The best option, it seems to me, would be to have some central granting agency fund the reviewer sabbaticals, with support from universities, for-profit-publishers (while they still exist), private foundations, and/or government funds. The agency could issue semester-long reviewer sabbatical grants to researchers at any university, based on the expected quality of the reviewing and need for reviews within the researcher’s research area(s).
How much would it cost? It depends. But with a $50,000 stipend for a semester, that’s $1M of grants per year for the 10 reviewer sabbaticals per semester scenario. There will also be operating costs and probably some additional costs that I haven’t thought of, but this gives us a sense of the order of magnitude. And it’s loose change for the Harvards, Elseviers, Templeton Foundations, and NEH/NSFs of the world.
My guess is that spending the marginal $1M in this way would do more to advance research as a whole than the same money spent funding particular researchers to pursue a specific projects.
Who gets the sabbaticals?
Having a granting agency setup also helps with this question. There would be some kind of review board which would get information about and simple applications from potential reviewer sabbiticalists, and distribute funding for reviewer sabbaticals on this basis.
They would look for evidence that a candidate is a good reviewer. Editors can be giving out some kind of commendations to good reviewers or making nominations to help with this.
They should also make sure that the candidate is competent to review in an area broad or popular enough to get enough submissions to review in a single semester. If they aren’t but are otherwise a good candidate, perhaps funding a teaching reduction rather than a sabbatical would make sense. This deals with the question about researchers being too specialized to review 30 papers in a semester.
If there are too many candidates that clearly meet the criteria, a lottery can decide who among them gets funded. This might be complicated, since there will be various overlapping mixes of reviewing competences among candidates and different amounts of need for reviews in different subfields, but I don’t see there being enough complication here to sink the proposal.
Too Much Power?
Hopefully the process of reviewing the reviewers would eliminate the worst cases of biased reviewing. Even so, one concern about the proposal is that it will give a small number of people a lot of influence over a subfield. If someone reviews 30 papers in their niche in a single semester, they might have more influence over its direction for the year than we would want.
I’m not too worried about this, though. We can require that the sabbaticalists not re-review submissions for multiple journals. So they can keep a given paper out of at most one journal. And since most journals will require two reviews for acceptance, they won’t have all that much power in getting submissions accepted. Second, given that their influence wouldn’t be very strong, a semester isn’t a long time for exerting influence. Third, I assume (associate) editors at popular journals already have more influence than what a sabbatical reviewer would have, even a repeat sabbatical reviewer.
I’m sure there are a lot of complications that I haven’t thought of and I wouldn’t be too surprised if there’s some deep flaw I’ve missed. But even if there isn’t, I have no idea how to make the proposal really happen. Anybody know someone who is or can influence someone with plenty of spare millions that they’d want to use to aid philosophical research?