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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Shen-yi Liao
9 years ago

I am not sure for-profit academic publishers should pay referees and authors. However, I am quite sure that potential referees and authors should not — as best as they can — provide free labor for for-profit publishers.

Even as a junior scholar, I’ve so far been able to avoid submitting to and refereeing for journals published by Springer and Elsevier, perhaps the two worst offenders in terms of subscription prices. (I had reviewed for Philosophical Studies as a graduate student before I learned more about the issue.) Indeed, when I was asked to review a work by a Springer journal, I put this “boycott” as my reason for refusal, and then a Springer rep contacted me trying to convince me that they’re not all that bad. When that did not work, he agreed to put me on a do-not-contact list for Springer journals.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m always really really happy when I’m asked to review for non-predatory open access journals such as Philosophers’ Imprint, Ergo, and Semantics & Pragmatics. (JESP: Call me!) In fact, I tried to do those reviews quicker than I would otherwise and with more helpful and constructive comments than usual. (Not that I try to be tardy and unhelpful with the other review requests, but you know what I mean.)

I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold on to this policy forever, and I am aware of some badness — especially to editors who need referees and other junior scholars who need their papers refereed — that this policy causes, but so far the balance of reasons has led me to maintain this policy.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
9 years ago

To be clear, for many academics, this isn’t part of our job, if by ‘job’ you mean something that we’re paid for. As a part-time lecturer, I’m not paid for research, and over the summer I’m not paid for anything at all. But to have any hope of securing a better position, I’m spending my summer working for free on articles that I hope will eventually be published.

Similarly the people in full time positions like this and this will be writing and reviewing for free, while being officially paid only for teaching and departmental service. But again they must do so if they want to be in a position to secure another job when that one is through.

Freelancers working in other creative professions have developed norms against such free spec work, because they recognize that this systematically undermines their ability to actually make a living by charging for their services. But I’m not sure I see the prospects for such norms taking hold in academia.

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
9 years ago

Should a similar request for, at least, token compensation hold for requests to do tenure review letters? These are extremely time consuming because of the importance for the person under review. It is true that the compensation has to come from an academic department which may already be under budgetary pressures. But the idea would be that if enough people asked for some compensation, and the departments relayed this to the administration, universities
would have to provide funds if they value the importance of outside evaluations.

Hilary Kornblith
Hilary Kornblith
9 years ago

I sympathize with Gusterson’s frustration. A number of commercial publishers make obscene profits from their publication of scholarly journals, and the vast majority of the work which makes this possible comes from authors and referees who are entirely uncompensated. At the same time, I can’t sign on to the proposed solution. It’s all too easy to opt out of refereeing for these journals, but the fact is that the people who will be hurt most by this are junior faculty, and they don’t deserve to pay the price for the bad behavior of the commercial publishers. There just aren’t enough open access journals in philosophy as yet, and until there are a good many more of them, those who refuse to do this kind of refereeing are just shifting the burdens here onto those who are least able to afford them. Asking to be paid for refereeing, or simply opting out of commercial refereeing altogether, is a poor substitute for doing the hard work of establishing more open access journals.

The case for compensation for tenure and promotion reviews seems to me to be even weaker, much as these reviews require a tremendous amount of work. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be employed by R1 universities in the United States already earn salaries far greater than any human being deserves. Asking universities–especially state universities–to provide additional pay for these reviews would have them divert these funds from where they are badly needed, to support a quality education for our students at a reasonable cost. I wouldn’t object to seeing some of the commercial publishers redistribute their wealth, but asking universities to move funds away from instruction and into our own very well-lined pockets is something I can’t support.

9 years ago

Well on question is who’d end up bearing these costs. Of course I think we should get paid for all the supererogatory stuff we do–and, to be clear, I do think it’s supererogatory and never feel bad saying no. If publishers paid us for reviews, then either that’d cut into their profit margins or else subscription rates go up. If tenure review committees paid us, tuition would go up. Has to come from somewhere. I think it’d be great if nobody ever agreed to review another Springer article; it’s a horrible model, there are too many bad journals, and so on. But unless we’re all going to “go indie”, I don’t see this talk about remuneration getting off the ground.

Donald Bruckner
9 years ago

The compensation practices for supererogatory work seem to be all over the place. My wife, who teaches in an English department, was recently paid for a P&T review by a public university — I don’t remember which state — though clearly this is not the norm. I was recently paid to review a Ph.D. thesis by a university in Australia (I’d have done it even if not), though I don’t think it’s standard practice in the U.S. to compensate committee members from outside the Ph.D. student’s university (it wasn’t 15 years ago when such a person was on my committee).

My wife and I have both been paid for textbook reviews, which I suspect is the norm. Reviewing a textbook seems most like reviewing for a for-profit journal, and I seriously doubt I would review a textbook for free.

Nevertheless, I tend to think of article reviews as paying forward the great debt I have to many past journal referees of my own work. For this reason, I rarely turn down a refereeing job. Generally I don’t even consider whether or not the press is for-profit, but consider instead whether the journal will pass my feedback on to the author (if it is not clear, I inquire). This isn’t to say that I don’t think we should be paid for this service, but my present thinking is with Hilary Kornblith that the harm caused to mostly junior scholars by not refereeing is greater than the harm of supporting the Springers and Elseviers caused by refereeing.