Maybe the time has come for academics to make a stand

This week, as usual, I received four emails from scientific journals politely asking me ’as a respected expert in my field, would I kindly consider refereeing a paper that had been submitted to their journal?’ My motivation for doing this was to be purely altruistic; the journals were not offering payment for the time this would take, which could be anywhere between 30 minutes and half a day.  

In my younger, more ambitious days, I probably felt quite flattered to be thought worthy enough for such responsibility, and subsequently spent my Saturday mornings writing carefully considered reports on each paper. But nowadays, being older, wiser, and decidedly more crotchety, I email my standard reply: ’I am afraid that I am extremely busy at the moment, and so refereeing this paper will have to be a low priority. I therefore will not be able to do so by your specified deadline. However, if you wish to move this task up my priority list, this can be achieved by payment of a small fee.’ Needless to say, none of the journals responded, and I assume the papers were passed on to less intransigent referees. 

Some of my colleagues were shocked when I told them this, and thought I was being far too mercenary. After all, isn’t science about spreading knowledge, not monetary rewards? Since I expect other scientists to referee my papers for free, so I should do the same for theirs. That would be fine, except I publish maybe three or four papers a year, but in the same period I’m asked to referee around 40. Another argument is that refereeing papers allows me to see important breakthroughs many months early, giving me a significant time advantage over other researchers. But of those 40 papers, only one or two are directly related to my current research. 

Maybe the time has come for academics to make a stand. Can you think of any other profession that gives away its expertise free of charge? Would a lawyer, surgeon or accountant provide unpaid consultancy? We academics often complain that we are not treated as professionals in the same way as other experts. Perhaps part of the reason is that we do not charge for our most prized attribute - our expertise. If we do not appear to value our years of education, knowledge and training, why should others? 

The solution is simple: pay referees a consultancy fee. It doesn’t have to be much, I’d suggest around £20 (more if the article is excessively long or controversial), but enough to make a referee feel that their opinion is valued. A typical journal issue contains about 50 papers, which means referee payments would cost an additional £1000, which is insignificant compared with the total production cost. The benefits to the publisher would easily outweigh any cost. If necessary, I believe most authors would be willing to pay the small refereeing cost, since they would recoup it when refereeing other papers themselves (in my case eight times over!). Referees would have to return their reports on time to get their fee, so publication times would speed up; bad or unreliable referees would not be asked twice, whereas reliable, detailed and fast referees would be asked again and again, and it could become quite a lucrative sideline for them. 

But while academics continue to referee papers for free, the system will never improve. Perhaps if more of us declined ’invitations’ to be unpaid referees, we might force publishers to reconsider. If they did, I’d gladly referee as many papers as the journals could send me. After all, at £20 a report, 40 referee reports a year would net me £800; a significant pay rise given academic salaries! Think of it as an extra two week holiday in the Algarve every year. Or, after saving up the payments, academics could even upgrade their cars to the newer models driven by lawyers and doctors.  

Paul May is senior lecturer at Bristol University’s chemistry department, UK