Is It Acceptable For Academics To Pay For Privatized, Expedited Peer Review?

Academic publishing is going through a turbulent time, not least because of the rise of open access, which disrupts the traditional model in key ways. But in one respect, open access is just like the old-style academic publishing it is replacing: it generally employs peer review to decide whether papers should be accepted, although there are some moves to open up peer review too. As this story from Science makes clear, commercial publishers are innovating here as well, although not always in ways that academics like:

An editor of Scientific Reports, one of Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) open-access journals, has resigned in a very public protest of NPG’s recent decision to allow authors to pay money to expedite peer review of their submitted papers.

According to the Science article, there are now several companies making millions of dollars from this kind of privatized, expedited peer review. Here’s more about Research Square, the one employed by NPG:

“We have about 100 employees with Ph.D.s,” says Research Square’s CEO, Shashi Mudunuri. That small army of editors recruits scientists around the world as reviewers, guiding the papers through the review process. The reviewers get paid $100 for each completed review. The review process itself is also streamlined, using an online “scorecard” instead of the traditional approach of comments, questions, and suggestions.

Authors pay $750 to NPG, and are guaranteed a review within three weeks or they get their money back. Research Square seems to be flourishing:

So far, Mudunuri says, the company has about 1400 active reviewers who have scored 920 papers. The company pulled in $20 million in revenue last year.

Still, the question has to be whether this leads to key benefits of the peer review process being lost. After all, the system is not just about accepting or rejecting papers. The NPG editor who resigned, Professor Mark Maslin, is quoted as saying:

“Deep consideration and a well thought out review is much more important than its speed. I have had brilliant reviews which have considerably improved my papers and I really appreciated all the time taken.”

The other issue is that the expedited, paid-for route is discriminatory:

“My objections are that it sets up a two-tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups,” Mark Maslin, a biogeographer at University College London, tells ScienceInsider. “Academic Publishing is going through a revolution and we should expect some bumps along the way. This was just one that I felt I could not accept.”

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