Should Publishers Pay Referees and Authors?


If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do.

This does not mean we would never referee articles free. Just as the lawyer who is my neighbor bills corporate clients a hefty fee but represents prisoners in Guantánamo pro bono, so academics could referee without charge for nonprofit presses but insist on professional rates of compensation from for-profit publishers that expect us to donate our labor while paying mansion salaries to their chief executives and top managers.

We could also insist that these publishers pay a modest fee to acquire our intellectual content if they publish our articles. To prevent chaos, our professional associations could recommend standard fees for refereeing articles and for compensating authors of articles.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of cultural studies and anthropology at George Mason, argues that academic publishers should pay journal article referees.

It is interesting to reflect on why we are willing to do all of that extra work for no extra compensation. It is true, as Gusterson says, that we consider the dispensing of expertise in various domains just to be part of our job. Put more cynically: perhaps we are trained to be suckers.

But there is more to it, it seems to me. For one thing, the first few times one is asked to referee, it seems like a form of flattery: a journal is seeking my  expertise! So the sense of professional recognition that comes with those early requests to referee can seem like a form of payment. Perhaps that feeling sticks, or perhaps we just get habituated to doing the work.

Another element is that some people agree to referee because they want to maintain “good relations” with a journal or editor. That may be a bit troubling, though, as it is unclear what benefits the editor, qua editor, is properly in a position to directly dispense to referees. More expedient or favorable treatment of their own submissions? Such arrangements are at odds with the blind review process that most journals purport to employ.

Should we get paid extra to referee articles? If not, why not? If so, how much?

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