May 8, 2015

Paid Peer Review

A couple of years ago, I received an email from Rubriq offering me the opportunity to be paid for performing peer review on pre-submission journal manuscripts. Rubriq’s mission is not a bad one, which is to reduce redundancies in the manuscript submission and journal review process. Basically, if one has a biological or medical manuscript (they are able to review other types of manuscripts, but not provide a full report), one could submit it to Rubriq and receive a report from 2-3 independent peer reviews (who are paid to perform the review), which will include a standard scorecard as well comments on how to improve the manuscript, and which reputable journals could possibly consider the manuscript (without rejecting outright). This report can then be submitted to a journal of choice as “supplementary material” for the journal editors to consider. Of course, one would have to pay Rubriq (USD650 currently) for the service, and some of that payment will be split among the reviewers.

Many of us would have worked with senior scientists/doctors whose flights of fancy or ego would result in the manuscripts being submitted to the very top journals (NEJM, Lancet, Nature, Cell, Science, etc.) for a few rounds of rejection before practicality sets in. This results in a considerable waste of time for the author(s) preparing the manuscripts (given that different journals have different formatting and/or stylistic requirements) and also for the journal editorial board. Some of us who sit on journal editorial boards and have to plough through long (and longer) lists of inappropriately-submitted manuscripts would be glad to have a reprieve. So the Rubriq model has its attractive points.

Those of us who perform peer review on journal manuscripts will know what a thankless job it is. The majority of journal peer review is done on an “honour system”, i.e. for free, because this has been part of the culture of the scientific community. And proper review can take up quite a significant proportion of time. Even if one feels one has done a good and balanced job, one can sometimes still experience a backlash from imperious celebrity scientists/doctors who complain about the poor review and appeal to the journal to reconsider its decision (or who just want to vent).

Probably one of the earliest protests against peer review. To be fair, peer review was not at all the norm during Einstein's time.

Probably one of the earliest protests against peer review. To be fair, peer review was not at all the norm during Einstein’s time.

And with the rise of open access journals, there are even more manuscripts to review, leading to many reviewers being inundated with review requests. I serve on the editorial boards of a couple of journals even at this point in time, and I find it increasingly difficult to find reviewers for manuscripts. Even if reviewers can be found, many of them are frequently late in submitting reports (and I am occasionally guilty of it as well), of which a sizeable portion are really low quality reviews. Part of it is for the reason listed above (i.e. busier scientists/doctors and many more review requests), and part of it is because the culture appears to be changing and the “honour system” is gradually being eroded. One can understand why journal editorial board members and potential reviewers might feel peeved and resentful when they see the huge profits made by the publishers of journals, be they open access or traditional, because of the essentially “free labour” provided by manuscript authors, reviewers (who help to improve the manuscripts), and editorial board members.

Therefore all things considered, I didn’t have too many issues with the paid peer review model offered by Rubriq.

So it was interesting and rather bemusing to learn about the recent unfolding saga in peer review. Basically, Scientific Reports – the open access “PLoS ONE”-like journal belonging to the prestigious Nature Publishing Group – had collaborated with Rubriq to start a pilot project in which authors who were willing to pay an additional USD750 (the article processing charge of the open access journal is already USD1,495 currently) could have a decision within 3 weeks. Presumably the reviewers would be provided by Rubriq rather than by Scientific Reports’ own editorial board members sourcing for reviewers using the traditional approach.

This led even those of us (like myself) who were in favour of – or at least not against – paid peer review to reconsider the natural ramifications of market forces on scientific publications. One of the editors of Scientific Reports, Mark Maslin, resigned. Other editorial board members, failing to reach a resolution with the editorial offices of Scientific Reports via email exchange, put up a public collective resignation letter (I am one among more than 150 signatories) that was to be submitted unless the Rubriq pilot was halted. And I am glad to say that it was. The basic concern was that such a system would create further inequality by discriminating against those authors/groups who could not pay, and it was unclear whether this system would make it even harder to find peer reviewers for the “normal” review track.

The ball appears to have returned to the court of those figuring out a way to improve peer review and to consider how paid peer reviews can be introduced without compromising the fundamental values of the scientific community.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. In order that this process not to create a 2 tiered system (ie those who can pay get speedier review like pharma sponsored trials or institutions who have the budget for this) it should be done across the board. They should equally explore where to get funding for this. Am all for this if these issues were addressed. Having said that, this approach should also be tested to members of ethics review board. That is another thankless job.


    • Thanks Arlene, I agree with you (and also on ethics board!). But the unfortunate reality is that publishers are not likely to want to see their profit margins erode, and will most likely pass on the costs of paid peer review to the authors or subscribers.


      • Do we have an idea on how much profits the scientific journals make? (even without paid peer review?)


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