21 Jan 2007

Why reviewers decline, and paying for peer review

"Reviewers are more likely to accept to review a manuscript when it is relevant to their area of interest. Lack of time is the principal factor in the decision to decline". This nugget comes from a study by Sara Schroter of the BMJ (Tite L, Schroter S: Why do peer reviewers decline to review? A survey. J Epidemiol Community Health 2007, 61(1):9-12).

Well, blow me down with a feather - it had never occurred to me that reviewers might decline if they were off-topic or busy...

What is more interesting is that their respondents doubt that paying reviewers would make them more likely to review when their time was constrained, and they suggest various other non-financial perks for reviewers, such as being publicly acknowledged, or joining the editorial board.

I'm not sure that I agree that payment would fail to act as an incentive, but I do have doubts that journals should move to making payments. Those journals that do pay reviewers, such as the
Lancet sometimes does, find it easier to get people to agree than those that don't. This is confounded by the prestige of the Lancet, but the extra cash can't harm their chances. What the respondents appear to have forgotten is that every reviewer is asked to review by several journals on a regular basis. If one routinely offers financial compensation, and the others don't, the paying journal will be the more attractive choice. Once enough journals began to pay reviewers, those that didn't would begin to notice their declining success rate, and feel the need to switch to paying (this is classic Game Theory). Payment would no longer help journals to obtain reviewers more easily than their competitors, but no journal could opt out for fear of losing reviewers.

Another issue with paying reviewers is that quite often reports are returned late, and may be of low quality. Payment could be tied to the report being delivered on time, but if reviewers were used to receiving payment, the incentive to then return the report once already late and without payment would be diminished. Payment could be tied to review quality, but using the Review Quality Instrument on every report would be laborious, and from speaking to someone who has used this rating tool it appears to be less than perfect. Currently editors send invitations to some reviewers who reply that they are off-topic or not qualified to review. Would the promise of payment fog the memory of some as to whether they were a suitable reviewer?

The payment of reviewers is also connected to a promise to fast-track. The
Journal of Medical Internet Research offers authors the option of paying a fast-track fee (currently $350), of which part is used to pay reviewers to return reports rapidly. My concern about such a promise of speed is that it conflicts with the job of an editor to ensure a high-quality review process. Although the standard number of reviewers is 2, quite often because editors invite more than 2 reviewers at a time more will agree to review. Normally an editor will be glad of the extra advice (authors may be less keen). If each peer reviewer needs to be paid or a very rapid decision needs to be made, editors will be less inclined to keep more agreed reviewers. If there is the need to seek further advice to resolve a certain issue, an editor might rather simply reject the manuscript rather than pay for and wait for another report.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee when reporting on open access in 2004, stated their belief that “the introduction of modest incentives for peer reviewers is an imaginative way of rewarding the contribution of peer reviewers to scientific endeavour. By carrying out reviews, researchers add value to the services provided by publishers. Whilst it would be inappropriate to pay reviewers personally, some recognition, made to their department, of the value of their contribution would be welcomed, particularly in view of the fact that many researchers are paid from public funds". I agree that, if it comes to it, a payment to the reviewer's institution would be preferable to direct payments to individual reviewers.

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