Paying for peer review? No thanks, I’m outta here…

I spent Friday traveling west of Omaha to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in of course, Kearney, Nebraska–about 3 hours west of Omaha. The University of Nebraska has 4 major campuses: 1) The University of Nebraska Medical Center (where I work, here in Omaha), 2) The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO, mostly undergraduate and also in Omaha), 3) The University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL–this is the major undergraduate campus and center of the university), and 4) The University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

I had been to Kearney several times before, most notably to see the sandhill crane migration (note you can see a photo of them at the top of this blog!), but this was my first time at UNK, and I enjoyed meeting colleagues, delivering a seminar and talking about art and science over beer at the science cafe. As the beer was good, and the hour late, I stayed overnight before striking out on my way back to Omaha this morning. Before leaving, I noticed an email that arrived in my inbox from a fellow scientist who also serves on the editorial board of “Scientific Reports,” an online open access journal from the Nature publishing group.

Reading the email, I learned of a very strange situation brought about by the journal: they are planning to open a new review track in which authors would pay to have their manuscripts reviewed within 3 weeks. I found that the publishing company likens this to paying for “expedited mail.” This, however, is a poor analogy, to say the least.

The journal intends to use a third-party-provider called “Rubriq” which seems to be a business that “pre-reviews” manuscripts that scientists intend to submit to actual journals, to help authors prepare for submission. Truthfully, I don’t know anyone in my field who would ever pay for such a service. However, it turns out that they are now expanding to provide reviews for Scientific Reports–at least for those authors who pay for the expedited service.

There are many ethical problems with this proposition. First, having a third-party group circumvent the regular editorial board is already wrong. It sets up two separate review entities–one for those who pay, and one for those who don’t. Second, there is no transparency for this Rubriq company. Unlike the general editorial board, they do not list reviewers who have expertise in specific fields, and this is entirely contrary to scientific ethics. Then, there is the issue of pay-for-review. To speed up peer review, the reviewers (chosen by the third-party) will be compensated. But if these reviewers are compensated, then why would any of the current editors and reviewers agree to continue volunteering their valuable time and effort to review without compensation? None of this makes any sense.

Needless to say, I signed the letter sent to me by email, but went one step further. I tendered my resignation from the editorial board and marked a large “X” by this journal. There may be many positive changes that lie ahead in the science publishing business, but this proposed change leads nowhere that I want to go.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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6 Responses to Paying for peer review? No thanks, I’m outta here…

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve, good for you. I will add Scientific Reports to the list of journals I refuse to review for.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Indeed. While the letter by the editors does have a “back door” (if the journal drops this plan, the editors will resume duties), my personal resignation letter did not. My trust has been lost, and I would be hard pressed to have anything further to do with this journal/system.

  2. Greg Goss says:

    As someone who peer-reviews >30 articles a year and is also an associate editor/editorial board member for 4 journals, I do all my reviewing for free.. and usually do so in ~ 2 weeks for each MS, I think there is a possibility for pay for review. The publishing industry charges $1000-$4000 for an open access article to be published (or even a paywall restricted one) so there should be a reward system somewhere. It can (and has) taken months (as long as 6 months!) for some of mine of my students articles to just be reviewed- I do think that publishers could/should reward reviewers who review articles in the appropriate time (and the review must be sound as well). This would really make a difference as cajoling reviewers who have accepted a responsibility and are not following through only delays the process unnecessarily. I doubt the “pre-review” system will work- except for ESL authors as it may be used as a means to judge the level of the science for appropriateness of journal- but this is open to serious ethical issues as well.

  3. Amazing.

    A couple of other things jump to mind. First, if the reviewers (or members of the reviewing company) are being paid, what is the expected deliverable? Are they expected to reject a certain number or percentage of manuscripts, to hit certain targets for acceptance, or something similar? When I purchase services I want there to be something measurable. Although “reviewed x number of manuscripts per month and delivered y number of pages of reviewers’ comments per manuscript” is measurable, I worry that instead the metric might be “number approved vs. number rejected”, which could of course very much undermine the peer review process if too many manuscripts that would ordinarily be accepted, or even worse rejected, were submitted under this paid stream. All of a sudden the paid organization might feel obliged to start reviewing more or less positively in order to slant towards a target.

    The second issue that comes to me immediately is the question of expectations from the submitters. Paying results in faster review: ok, I understand the attraction. But the danger is that paying for review might also come with an implicit idea that acceptance is more likely, which is of course not what we would hope to be the case. And I really do not approve of the idea of doing this for a while and then attempting to test after the fact whether paid vs. unpaid reviews result in a change in acceptance rate.

    Can of worms = open, I think.

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