August 2013

Perceptions matter: Would reviewer compensation undermine public credibility?


Reviewing is a business transaction

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When I hear scientists propose that reviewers be compensated, I do not dismiss the idea out of hand. After all, I typically review 30 to 50 manuscripts a year, so at $50 or $100 a pop … After all, a good reviewer brings years of training and experience to the evaluation of scientific work and spends quality time reading, reflecting and generating feedback on a manuscript. Many publishers directly profit from my voluntary contributions to the vetting of research papers, so why not stop the exploitation of my public spirit and let me share the wealth?
While there is some merit to the idea of compensating professionals for their service, there is peril as well. Peer review is one of the cornerstones of science. We differentiate ourselves from the vast array of consultants, advisers, forecasters and other experts because we put our ideas and experiments to the test both at the bench and among our peers. If people perceive that the peer-review system has been compromised, our community stands to lose much of its ability to inform and enlighten. We become just another set of so-called experts.
We tend to credit those individuals foolish enough to take on thankless tasks of no apparent personal benefit voluntarily and repeatedly with positive, even altruistic, motivations. The perceived thanklessness and onerousness of uncompensated peer-review service enhances, admittedly with essentially circumstantial evidence, the perception that referees attempt to be objective and fair.
The idea that scientists are being paid to give the thumbs up or thumbs down on each other’s work would offer potent ammunition for skeptics and critics of all kinds. For those who believe the peer-review system is fundamentally flawed, the equation “money = corruption” will seem as logical as “2 + 2 = 4.” The suspicion that a reviewer might alter his or her standards, even unconsciously, in an effort to curry favor with editors for financial gain is a recipe for disaster. Certainly those who are pushing the replacement of peer-reviewed journals by unvetted research blogs would seize immediately on reviewers for hire as a cudgel for advancing their agenda.
In the end, science derives its credibility and funding from the perception that the work we publish is the product of a system that employs, as one of its integral components, a mechanism for objective, self-correcting quality control. While there are some publications and institutions that do compensate reviewers, in considering the idea of making reviewer compensation universal, it is not really important whether scientists think it is a reasonable idea. What is really important is how it will play with John and Mary Q. Public and the persons they elect to public office.

Peter KennellyPeter J. Kennelly ( is a professor and the head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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