We often argue that peer-review is unfair to us, academics, who are asked to review papers for free and then have to pay to publish (or publish behind paywalls) in the same journals that exploit our labor. But perhaps the unspoken victims are our employers – universities.
Universities are donating our time to for-profit journals
Every time we review a paper, we are taking some time out of our work week to not refine a lecture, organize a seminar, write a grant, etc. Now, of course, some of this peer-review time, for some of us, is displaced to our free time, at a cost to our mental health – but for those of us who do this, we probably do that with the rest of our work too. We only have a finite amount of time – so I think time dedicated to peer-review actually displaces other work rather than free time, for many. So why haven’t universities who are losing productivity and money to fund obscene profit margins at academic publishing houses fought back?
Universities donate infrastructure to for-profit journals
We often use a lot of university resources to conduct peer review: library subscriptions to look up references, email addresses and associated costs, computers, and a whole suite of other costs.
Universities also pay for publishing: While there are examples of academics paying for publishing out of their own salary, there are a lot of instances where universities cover publishing charges for prestigious journals. Even if they don’t pay directly, they pay indirectly to publish, as any money from a grant or academics pocket could be allocated differently. Universities also pay for library subscriptions so we can read the papers we publish.
Maybe peer-review is a tool universities have to fight back
What if a university created an approved list of publishers that they have agreements with to do peer-review for. For these publishers, academics are allowed to review manuscripts using university resources, including computers, email addresses, library subscriptions, and work hours. For any journal, not affiliated with the approved list, academics are allowed to review papers for them, but not using university resources. Universities could then use this power to negotiate better deals with journals that protect their employee’s time and productivity in a way that overall benefits the university. If enough universities followed suit I think some of the more publishing houses would struggle to get reviewers, and might start thinking about improving their practices.
If a university were to institute this policy, would academics follow it? The policy would be almost impossible to enforce. But I don’t know, I’d welcome an excuse to cut down on peer-review for journals who exploit me, and I think others would too. I think self-enforcement would be pretty easy, especially if review only counted as service, for promotions and tenure decisions, from the approved list.
For those of us who work at private universities, it is shocking how the universities are not looking out for their own best interest here [at least in my opinion]. For those of us working for public universities, it is a bit murkier, as to who pays us. I still think the above policy is at least an interesting point for discussion, even if the majority of academics (at least ecologists) don’t entirely agree that peer-review is broken.