One of the most criticized aspects of the current publishing scheme, is that academics do pretty much all the work for free and publishers get the money.

Why don't people just charge a fee when contacted by a publisher to referee an article?

I know why do academics write peer reviews?, that's not the question. The issue is why do it requesting no monetary compensation when the publisher is getting (for doing next to nothing) an extraordinary monetary compensation.

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    Related: Are there any journals that pay reviewers?
    – ff524
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 15:21
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    I think a better -- i.e., more reasonably attainable -- question would be "Why don't researchers get more academic credit for refereeing?" If you don't get paid for the papers you write, it's weird to get paid for the papers you referee. Writing a paper is certainly worth some academic currency, it just doesn't come out directly in dollars. However, credit given for papers refereed is moderate to nebulous to non-existent. That's what could be fixed, IMO. Commented May 4, 2016 at 16:09
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    I guess it's the same reason why the moderators of the site don't get paid.
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 18:55
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    I addressed this in this answer about why academics write peer reviews. Commented May 5, 2016 at 7:53
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    I just got my PhD and I have the same question. I've had a couple of requests to review things and each time I've asked around -- "what's in it for me?" People just say it's the done thing. So far, the only explanation of a significant benefit I've had is "you get to see the paper before anyone else does." Commented May 5, 2016 at 16:21

12 Answers 12


Academics aren't upset about not getting paid for refereeing/reviewing - they're upset because journals charge too much.

There's really four points in the statement "academics do pretty much all the work for free and publishers get the money"

  • Academics do most of the work
  • Publishers do a comparatively small amount of work
  • Publishers get the money
  • Academics don't get any money

Just because people might object to some of the four points, that doesn't mean they object to all of them.

Academics do most of the work - Most academics wouldn't object to this state of the affairs. Of course academics do most of the work in publishing (especially reviewing) - they're the ones who are qualified to do it. You can't have some bureaucrat take care of reviewing the work, you need someone who knows the field.

Publishers do a comparatively small amount of work - Academics might grumble at this, but there's a comparatively little that the publishers are qualified to do. Typesetting, printing, maintaining the journal website, administration in the reviewing process ... and that's about it. All the actual content decisions have to be done by knowledgeable people (academics). There's certainly some journals which try to offload things like typesetting onto the authors, but in part that's financially driven ...

Publishers get the money - This is the main point of upset. Publishers charge what is viewed as an excessive amount. ... but it's not that they're charging money per se, it's more that academics lose access to the content due to expense. Most academics were completely satisfied when they had access through (paid) library subscriptions. It's only when budget cuts (and publisher price increases) caused libraries to cut subscriptions that academics got upset. But again, it's less having to pay for things and more not being able to access everything they need.

Academics don't get any money - This is the point you're addressing. However, I'd say most academics don't have a problem with it. Refereeing for a journal is considered by most to be community service - it's something that needs to happen, and they're the only ones qualified to do it. It's quid-pro-quo: others review your articles, and you review other people's. Attempting to make it a paid-for enterprise makes the person asking for the money seem greedy.

So where does that leave you? Academics (mostly) don't have a problem doing most of the work - and doing it for free. The complaints are on the publisher's side: they're charging too much for what little they do. Demanding that publishers pay academics for reviewing isn't going to change that. If anything, it will make journal access more expensive, as they now need to pay for reviewers.

So charging a fee when reviewing isn't going to fix the problem, and as Mark Meckes mentions in his answer, asking for one is only going to make you look naive and greedy to the (academic) editor who you're in contact with. Note that there's a very big difference between "Decline to review based on principles" and "Decline to review ... unless you pay me".

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    It seems like the publishers are the smarts ones. The publishers get paid to do little while the PhD academic gets nothing for working a lot. Commented May 5, 2016 at 1:41
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    @darrinthomas Actually I do get something. I get a salary and reviewing papers is part of my job. So extra something for reviewing would feel a bit strange.
    – Dirk
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 7:37
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    @Dirk Correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't your salary stay exactly the same if you completely stopped reviewing papers? I mean, how would your university's administration know?
    – user9646
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 9:49
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    @NajibIdrissi Sure, but that’s a failure of employers to properly delineate research employees’ responsibilities on the job. Peer review, which is an integral part of taking part in scientific discourse, is a part of your job as scientist, regardless of whether your contract explicitly says that or not. Commented May 5, 2016 at 12:41
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    @DarrinThomas I think the academics are the smart ones, they get a steady curated stream of interesting ideas in their research interests to read and digest, whilst all the publishers get is boring admin and nothing but money for recompense.
    – Racheet
    Commented May 6, 2016 at 12:14

Leaving aside arguments for and against the current system, here's what will happen if you --- as an individual academic --- are contacted by a publisher and attempt to charge a fee:

  1. You will most likely be contacted, not by a "publisher" per se, but by an editor, who is another hard-working academic getting little or no monetary compensation for their job.

  2. You say something like, "This is my fee for refereeing an article."

  3. The editor responds, "Sorry, we have no budget to pay for refereeing," and goes to look for another referee.

  4. In the best case scenario, the editor --- who is most likely a well-regarded senior researcher in your field, the sort of person who may make or influence decisions over your hiring, promotion, grants, and the publication of your own papers --- now has the impression that you're deplorably ignorant about how the field operates. In the worst case, the editor thinks you're a jerk who's actively seeking to make life harder for other people working in the field.

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    @Gabriel in that case, replace step 4 above with that senior researcher thinking of you as a pretentious jerk who doesn't really get it. Refereeing is part of "service to the profession". No, it's not directly compensated but it's part of the networking and improvement of the profession we do.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:50
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    @Gabriel: Even with an explanation, you're still saying something like "This is my fee," and for non-open access papers, your proposed compromise will still run into the cold hard fact that, in most fields, the editor simply has no budget from which to pay a referee. Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:55
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    On the other hand, if you simply say "I only referee for open-access journals," you'll come across as making a statement about the system. It's a statement that the editor may or may not sympathize with, but you won't come across as not even knowing what the system is. Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:57
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    @RHertel: That depends on the field. In mathematics (my field) and physics (the OP's field), author-pays open access journals are rare, and at least in mathematics there are now a number open access journals which are free to everyone (I'm not sure about physics). But in any case, I'm only commenting on what the OP suggested he might say. Commented May 5, 2016 at 21:57
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    ...and the presence of considerable publication fees could make the reviewing process problematic. A possible conflict of interest of the editor cannot be ruled out categorically, since any paid-for publication increases the journal's revenues.... It's a complicated topic.
    – RHertel
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 22:28

In some fields, for some journals, they are paid a fee. [File this as yet another example of "academia varies more than you think"...] This approach seems to be most popular with economics journals - as they are heavily into studying the way people can be motivated by money, I suppose this makes sense!

An exceptional example is the Journal of Financial Economics - most articles have a single reviewer, who is paid $275 cash (and a ~$200 discount off their next submission), contingent on a timely review. Lower down the scale, the Journal of Banking and Finance talks about offering "tokens of appreciation" for reviewers; there's no cash value given but the phrasing suggests it's probably a good bit lower.

Now, why do these journals do it? Probably because they always have done, an explanation which applies to a lot of strange quirks of the academic system. But is it a good idea? The recent proposal by Scientific Reports to have a two-track paid- and unpaid-peer-review system was incredibly contentious, after all...

The Journal of Public Economics recently tested the system out - they took 1500 review requests for their papers, and divided them into four groups:

  1. a six-week deadline, but no penalty for missing it
  2. a four-week deadline, but no penalty for missing it
  3. a four-week deadline, and a promise of $100 payment for meeting the deadline
  4. a six-week deadline, but reviewers told turnaround times would be made public

All variants worked well. The group with a four-week deadline had an average turnaround time of twelve days less than the six-week deadline group. Payments took another eight days off the turnaround time, and "public credit" another 2.5 days. The money/credit groups wrote slightly shorter reports, presumably as they were more motivated to make a hard deadline, but the editors did not see them as of noticeably lower quality.

So... yes, payment can work. But it relies on the journal having the money (two reviewers is $200/paper), and - intriguingly - it's not quite as effective as the no-money-needed option of just giving a shorter deadline. And even when it does work, it only makes sense if done systematically by the journal. Individuals asking to negotiate their own review payments is unlikely to work in the same way.

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    Was there any study on whether money alters the content or biases of the reviews?
    – Nemo
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 19:41
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    @nemo I believe they said they wereno more or less likely to recommend acceptance, which seems a decent first approximation for 'no more biased than usual' ;) Commented May 4, 2016 at 19:50
  • I wonder whether the reviewers get that money themselves if they do the review while they are formally working. May depend heavily on the jurisdiction, of course. Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 21:56

Because that's not how it works.

That may seem unsatisfying, but it's the answer. It's part of scientific culture that peer reviewing is done without charging, just as it's part of business culture that you don't wear sagging shorts and torn t-shirts to work.

Is it something that might change? Sure; it's not a formal contract, it's a cultural thing, and cultures change. But most scientists feel that peer review is a good thing, and most scientists feel that it should be free, so it's unlikely that it will change soon.

Keep in mind that, while there's a lively on-line debate about the merits of peer review and open-access publication and so on, this is a debate among tiny and non-representative populations of scientists. Don't confuse the passion and attitudes that you see on-line with how most scientists actually feel.

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    How do you perceive most scientists actually feel?
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 15:10
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    I don't experience much discrepancy between on-line debates and how scientists I know and work with feel. Could you elaborate on the last paragraph?
    – gerrit
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 15:15
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    I would be surprised if one in ten of the scientists I work with actually knows there's a debate about open access and peer review, and I would be astonished if more than one in a hundred gives a shit. Online debates are heavily skewed toward younger, computer-oriented, new researchers. If you spend most of your time talking on-line, or if your colleagues are mainly young, computer-oriented new researchers, you may think you are more representative than you actually are. Older scientists are still common, and you're not speaking for them.
    – iayork
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 16:51
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    Uh? Are you talking to me or somebody else? I've no idea what you are talking about.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 19:47
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    This is not a very satisfying answer. Essentially it states that things are the way they are because that's how they've always been, and concludes with a rather patronizing comment dismissing the debate. I'd argue that this type of answer is actually rather unacademic behavior, offering no insights and no real analysis.
    – mtall
    Commented May 7, 2016 at 7:27

If you do this on an individual scale, as Mark Meckes says, it's basically the same as just declining to review the paper. The journal is not going to pay you; they will find someone else.

You could ask "What if everyone started demanding money?" That's essentially a proposal that researchers as a group should strike for higher wages. Like any labor action, it'll only work if a large majority of the labor force participates and is well organized. Anybody who's served as a department chair can tell you that organizing any significant number of academics to agree on anything is, well, challenging. Here you are talking about organizing all the academics in the world.

If somehow a strike were to be effective, large commercial publishers might eventually knuckle under and start paying; small publishers might not have the resources, and might go out of business. At least in the short term, it would be very disruptive to the academic community: initially, publishers would probably just look for referees who weren't on strike ("scabs") and the review process would be greatly delayed. Some journals might suspend publication. Ultimately, the people most harmed would probably be junior researchers who need to publish in a timely manner in order to maintain or advance their careers. So you'd have to have a consensus that the long-term gain outweighs the short-term harm.

To use a physics analogy, we're in a potential well; there might be a lower-energy state (one in which reviewers get paid), but the activation energy to get from here to there is extremely high.

  • Yes, it's more of a large scale question that rather "Should I do it?". The conditions need not be the same for every publisher. E.g.: If it's a large publisher and a closed paper, there's a fee; if the paper is open access, there's no fee; if it's a small publisher, little to no fee, etc.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 14:39

Because keeping money out of the publisher-reviewer relationship is a very good feature of the current dominant publishing model.

Some of the unwanted things that paying reviewers would result in:

  • unqualified or overbooked academics to accept all reviews resulting in a drop in review quality.
  • academics accepting to review papers that are not interesting to them, thus probably lowering the scrutiny threshold.
  • people maximizing the number of reviews they do in a year thus allocating less time to each. -> drop in quality.
  • people refraining from outright rejecting frivolous and junk papers on first screening to try to charge a full review
  • etc.
  • All very good points indeed, but money is definitely not out of the publisher-reviewer relationship. Publishers get money (a lot) from reviewers in the form of subscriptions, be it individual or academic.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 12:57
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    @gabriel Your point seems more to be about the relationship between Publishers and Readers. I think CapeCode's answer is talking specifically about the social/professional transaction between publishers of a paper and reviewers of the paper. The fact that reviewers are also readers is relevant to wider issues but not, I think, to this particular answer
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 16:28
  • @YemonChoi if reviewers were not also readers then this issue would not exist, since no one would do this job for free getting absolutely nothing in return.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 16:33
  • @Gabriel publishers charge for the publishing, not for the review nor the actual work resulting in the publication. Authors and reviewers *are" paid to write and review, that's what their stipend, salary, grants are for.
    – Cape Code
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 18:49
  • @CapeCode the "publishing" charge does include the actual work and the review, without either there would be nothing to publish (obviously) and thus nothing to charge. No, authors are not paid to review, that's the whole point. You could only include that task into their salaries if the Universities themselves were the ones publishing (and profiting), instead of some external company which has nothing to do with the process.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 19:16


  • most academics I know are paid for reviewing (via their employment contract)
  • thus it would be up to the employer (university/research institute) to charge for the service
  • I'll outline the burocratic and legal steps needed on the reviewer side (in my country: Germany) to be able to charge personally for a review. For many academics, this burocratic offset compared to what you can earn this way is not attractive.

First of all let me say that from my experience

academics do pretty much all the work for free

I think this is true at best for a very small minority of academics. My work contract says that (among other things) I'm paid for "publication activities" and that clearly includes reviews. Clearly as in administration asks me to report for yearly statistics number of reviews done for which journals just like they ask for manuscripts, oral presentations and posters.
So while I'm not paid by the publisher, I am paid by my employer for the reviews. And I know very few academics who go on publishing and reviewing after the academic job ends - few people put that much effort into a hobby. (I'm thinking here more of graduates/post-docs without job than of retired professors because I think the out-of-job-academics are the better control group for this discussion)

For me this makes the question very similar to why does a car mechanic work who is employed by a workshop not charge the customer directly? Answer: it's the employer who charges the customer (via their administration), the mechanic is paid by their wage.

We now may ask why doesn't the employer (research institute, university) charge the publisher for services received? IMHO this is a sensible question and one that actually should be asked. Edit: However, to me this is not the same as the question asked why a single researcher doesn't charge the publisher. The standing and the aims in these negotiations are IMHO totally different of a single researcher compared to a university/research institute.

[slightly off topic: one answer to this may be that for academic institutions of a certain size the number of reviews done by the staff comes close enough to the number of reviews needed for the publications of the same staff - so introducing payment for reviews (including the institution needs to pay for the reviews they receive) just means that more VAT needs to be paid, and thus generates a net loss.]

Edit: Why do I think that charging for review will lead to charges for having your paper reviewed? For one thing, of course commercial publishers won't like to diminish their profits if they can avoid it. But even then: assuming an open source source publication fee of, say, 1500 EUR/US$ leads to 500 EUR/US$ profit (that's 33 %) for the publisher means that 500 EUR/US$ could theoretically be spent for the review before the publisher will enter the loss zone. That pays (see below) for maybe 5 - 10 h of professional academic review time. I often spend considerably more on a single review (see e.g. https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/5799/725 where @JeffE cites a rule of thumb of about 1 h/manuscript page - we often have 15 - 25 manuscript pages). I don't know what the average number of reviews is per published paper, but I'd guess that it is somewhere near 10. But even a low guesstimate of 3 for the first round + 2 for the second (that doesn't even include that papers are declined!) means that 5 x 20 h = 100 h of review time per published paper. That's something like 5000 - 10000 EUR/US$, or 10 - 20x the huge profit of the publisher.

So, yes, the reviewing is a huge amount of work and it needs to be compensated, like writing the papers needs to be compensated. And yes, it is the researchers who do this. But even the most evil shark publishers with 40 % profit of a 1500 EUR fee for an open access publication would be able to pay for that.

How to charge a publisher for services received (i.e. the review) as the reviewer in person?

(this is for Germany, other legislations will differ)

On the other hand, well, yes: why not charge the publisher?

Scientific reviewieng is a classic professional service of freelancers (German: freiberufliche Tätigkeit). In order to do such freelancing, you first of all need to make sure that there is no conflict with any employment. This is best done by exchanging a couple of letters with your professor/director/administration. Unless they actually have some deal with the publisher, they probably wish you good luck and are happy with that.

You then go to the tax office and ask for a freelancing tax number. If this is just for the few reviews you do, you'd also ask for exemption of VAT, otherwise you'd need to do VAT declarations (if dealing with a publisher in a EU foreign country, things are more complicated). But at the very least, the freelancing tax number means that your income tax declaration becomes mandatory, gets an additional set of forms for the freelancing and you have a shorter deadline to hand it in.

You'll need to put in this effort regardless of whether you are actually able to convince a publisher to pay you or not.

I guess most researchers I know think that compared to doing the review for the academic salary this extra money is not worth the extra burocracy. (I know of one colleague who told of his burocratic experience where an extra payment < 1000 EUR for a seminar was concerned)

Now, I anyways do freelancing, so the marginal effort for me is low (as it is for people who anyways do vocational tax declaration and do it early). However, so far I have to say that the market price of reviewing is rather unattractive. I've been offered 100 US$ to do a quick "review" within a couple of days (no full review was asked but rather something like an opinion on the manuscript and pointing out which points I'd recommend should be addressed before actual submission).

Some comparisons:
I estimate that I cost my employer about 75 - 100 US$ / h (of which 22 US$ / h actually arrive at my bank account after taxes + social insurance for me have been paid). Thus, the offered market price for the review service boils down to the cost of 1 - 1:10 h for my employer. Even though my freelancing doesn't have as much overhead (e.g. because small-scale freelancing on the side is covered by the social insurance of the employment contract), I'd need to finish that review within ca. 2 h to get the same hourly wage I get for my employment contract. Also as it is very much on-demand of the journal, it cannot even be used too well for filling up time when I don't have a customer. So all in all, even though my marginal burocracy for doing this is low, it is not super-attractive. In fact, I'm better off if I can put the time onto my academic time sheet. You may decide differently, particularly if your employer does not accept a time sheet.

Another comparison: for me, the hourly wage for such a review is close to filing VG Wort claims - though the hourly wage there would be better if I had more papers to file, as there's quite an offset of remembering how to do things that need to be done just once per year.

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    @Gabriel: the standing a single researcher has in negotiations with a publisher is so much different (worse) than that a whole university (or, as in Germany most universities are state owned and organized in library networks) has that I consider it a different question. The more so, as a PhD student or post-doc is professionally judged by the journals where they published and therefore doesn't have the freedom to decline working with the big publishers. Whereas a university does have the resources and standing, e.g. to run an open access journal (see e.g. www.jstatsoft.org, look for "Support")
    – cbeleites
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 16:35
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    ... the more so, as the cost for reviews based on the hours spent is huge (see edit).
    – cbeleites
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 16:47
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    As for "most researchers are paid for doing reviews": this is standard duty for academic work in all countries where I've been working so far. Standard as in saying "I cannot do XXX because I have to do this review" and reviewing in the office during work hours. I know lots of people who stopped all academic activities (including publication) when their contracts ended, but very few (1, actually) who'd maybe consider keeping it up without being on a job that is connected to this publication activity. Reviewing is typically stopped pretty much immediately, even if they still publish.
    – cbeleites
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 16:52
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    "most researchers are paid for doing reviews", that's precisely the point: they are not. You think it is "standard duty for academic work" apparently because your University asks you to report your reviews. Would anything change if you stopped reviewing altogether and focused on publishing? For most researchers, nothing would change. They'd still receive the same salary as compensation for their work. You seem to believe that if you stopped reviewing your University would either fire you or reduce your salary?
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 17:56
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    I agree with Gabriel: I know of no university in which faculty are in any reasonable sense directly paid for their reviews. Faculty are not directly paid for anything that isn't specific to the university, as reviews for a journal certainly are not. For some kinds of academic work, the quality and quantity of it is evaluated in some way and this goes into hiring, promotion and salary decisions. This does not apply to reviews, which are not even systematically reported and certainly never fact-checked (it is not even clear that they could be). Commented May 8, 2016 at 18:02

[Caveat: I agree that the publishing system is quite flawed. Meanwhile, let us have another look]

While cash has become the most common payment method, it is not the only one. Let us talk about barter:

[...] a system of exchange where goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money.

In some countries, academia is not the best paid occupation, for instance young researchers. So the reward of researchers is not only money. Let us call the other reward: "knowledge". Knowledge is not a standard good. You cannot say:

  • I'd like to buy 3 pounds of algebraic skills
  • Sure! For here or to go?

You can learn by yourself, for yourself, but except for rare beautiful minds, one needs evaluation. As for many creative works, evaluation is difficult without peers, science is a cumulative progress of unassigned tasks. Evaluations are legion: peer-review, seminars, collaborations, teaching.

The first time I submitted a paper, I had almost no idea about peer-review. The first return was an shot in the head. Teached me a lot. I got reward from being peer-reviewed. I learned that the anonymous guys did that for free. So I reviewed. For free.

Wait, no really.

  • By reviewing, I almost got access to work in progress, to half-finished works, but anyway current trends, 6 months to 2 years before actual publications, quite sooner than other folks. Time is money
  • By reviewing, I had to sharpen my reading tool, to discover topics at the borders on my knowledge, to read at least cited works. Work is money
  • By reviewing, I had only once the opportunity to share reviews of a pool of papers with colleagues (ICIP 2003). We learned that one may be wrong, and two others could correct. Minority report is money
  • By reviewing, I learned conference and journnal habits, priceless for my publications. Efficiency is money
  • By reviewing, I compensate for others who review my stuff. Payback is money

For these several reasons, and some more, I do reviewing in a barter mind. What is troublesome is that somebody else draws actual money from that. We might be at the verge of a Ponzi pyramid of scientific publishing.

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    I agree but money is money and publishers get to keep it for doing pretty much nothing. That's not fair.
    – Gabriel
    Commented May 5, 2016 at 0:35

My personal view on the matter is that journal / refereed venue publication should be a collaborative non-pecuniary effort of scientific communities in different fields, in which nobody gets paid for doing specific tasks like reviewing a paper but it is acknowledged that as an academic, some of your time is spent doing that, and as a university, research institute or other entity which garners benefit from scientific research - you would be obliged (morally? socially? legally?) to "contribute reasonably" to this effort.

Of course, this leaves the open question of what would be fair for people who are not employed as researchers. It's not about whether they get compensated, but rather how they can spend time on non-affiliated research activity and not go bankrupt, or work "two jobs", their "day job" and unpaid research-related work. This problem is especially accute for people employed in precarious teaching-only positions in Academia, and for that I might agree some compensation-per-review might be in order - although it's a matter for the academic labor unions to struggle for.


I agree that reviewers provide a valuable and uncompensated service.

I believe most academics, however, are sadly misinformed about the work that goes into publishing an article after the reviewers approve it.

I am a former researcher turned manuscript editor. I have published a first author paper and a second author paper in a biological science. I have worked in medical and scientific publishing for 13 years as an editor and now as a consultant.

Top journals likely have no difficulty getting top reviewers. However, the lesser known journals (some of which I happen to consult for) do not have folks beating down their doors to review articles. They must approach those who may or may not be well-qualified to review an article.

I consider myself the last bastion of reason in the publication process. Just yesterday, I spend 9 hours as a paid consultant on an article that was so illogical, so full of errors, and so ill-referenced that I wondered how the reviewers could have possibly thought it was appropriate for publication. This journal hires me because they know I am capable of critically editing research. I have spoken to them on many occasions about the poor quality of the articles that are approved by reviewers.

My goal as an editor is to prevent embarrassment for the journal and to protect the scholarly literature from garbage. I take this responsibility very seriously.

The first editor spent likely 30 hours researching and rewriting to replace the garbage that was submitted and approved by 3 reviewers, conveying these to the author and then receiving and incorporating the comments from the author. Then the article came to me. I spent another 9 hours editing and pointing out serious errors in fact and consistency. The article needs another rewrite, which the editor will ask the author to do. This process is far from over. The designer will need to craft the illustrations and typeset the article. The production editor will need to manage the final proof process. The publishing process is far from the “nothing” that many scholars believe -- only those who have never seen it from the publishing side would say that.

The time pressure is enormous. The reviewers have approved the article and therefore it was placed in the publication queue. The editors MUST get the article into shape, poor as it is, for publication. We are not the experts, of course, so we have no recourse. I have been stuck on more than one occasion with the task of completely rewriting an illogical, inexpert, poorly referenced article because it was in the queue—the reviewers approved.

The journal pays through the nose for my services and the services of their in-house staff. I despair at the naivete of those who believe that the publisher gets paid for doing "next to nothing."

To force the publishers out of the process will dramatically reduce the quality of the medical and scientific literature. This I cannot abide.

  • Welcome to Academia SE. We have many questions which could benefit from your insight to the publishing process (e.g., this question of mine). Unfortunately, this question isn’t one of them, as it is asking about why the reviewers do not receive payment, not what the journal staff does and why this deserves payment. Please understand that we follow a strict question-and-answer format and answers that do not address the question will be deleted.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 14:26
  • Ah. I felt that I was commenting on the premise of the question, which was "academics do pretty much all the work for free and publishers get the money." I believed the premise of the question to be flawed. My apologies if I spoke out of turn.
    – S Cook
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 17:50

This is the same question that I often think. From your point of view, yes, you are right in your place. Why should not we get money for review? However, main point is who will decide to give money? And how the amount would be fixed? Based on what? Who will judge? Editor-in-chief, or other person? Since we don't have the clear understanding and methodology for these, there is no money for reviewers.

And regarding publishers, apart from reviews, there are Publishing staffs who are responsible for handling the post acceptance process. Thus, money is required for publisher for the salary of these staffs, also for the journal advertising. Conference is another typical issue. Following this way, you can find where money goes.

Another important aspect, sometimes research can't be measured by money, however, research produces a huge amount of money.


The short answer is that the publisher can't afford it (the Cost of Knowledge boycott notwithstanding). If reviewers demanded payment en masse either the system will break down or they'll be paid a pittance per review, and reviewers will complain that they're being made fun of (see this for what happened when the New England Journal of Medicine paid $5 per review).

We can get a sense of how much revenue a journal makes by using OA prices & the number of articles it publishes a year. (This has many potential problems, but I ignore them for simplicity). A moderately large journal might publish 100 articles a year. OA prices vary widely but I'll take $1500 as a baseline. Some publishers can go lower by cutting corners e.g. for copyediting and marketing, but that's clearly less than ideal. So the journal might have a revenue of ~$150,000 per year. Some of the revenue goes towards paying for the editorial management system, marketing, production, possibly the editor-in-chief's honorarium if applicable, and so on. Let's assume a net margin of 10%, i.e. a profit of $15,000 a year.

Next let's assume the journal has a rejection rate of 75% (for comparison the most selective journals have rejection rates of over 90%). Assume the journal requires two reviews per manuscript to make a decision. That means the journal needs a total of ~800 reviews a year. If it paid $10 for each of those reviews, that's over half the net margin gone! Viewed from this perspective, NEJM didn't pay $5 for each review because they were making fun of the reviewers. They did so because it was all they could afford to pay.

Finally let's not forget that this is a reasonably large journal - 100 papers / year. There're many smaller journals around, many of which are not indexed by SCI and therefore don't have an impact factor. These journals are almost always loss-making. They only stay afloat because the publisher subsidizes them using the profit margin from their larger journals. If these journals also had to pay for reviews, they would lose even more money. Publishers would be incentivized to shut them down, which hurts research since the papers published in these journals aren't necessarily bad, they just tend to be boring and low novelty. To top it off even this reasonably large journal is probably facing subscription cuts in the current market (see my answer to a different question).

Having said all this, this applies only to journal articles. The sheer volume of reviews required in journal publishing makes it hard to pay reviewers, but if you're reviewing book proposals, you can expect some compensation. You might not receive cash, but you should be able to e.g. get a free book from the publisher's collection.

  • Can't afford it? theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/…
    – Gabriel
    Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 23:08
  • Yup, can't afford it. Elsevier might be a (slight) exception because of its exceptionally high profit margins; other publishers don't do nearly as well. But you can still do the calculations. That article quotes Elsevier as receiving 1.5 million submissions a year. At 2 reviewers per submission, how much can it afford to pay reviewers before its entire profit is wiped out? The fact that no publisher - including those started by people complaining about publishing - pays its reviewers is a giveaway as to that idea's feasibility.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 23:39
  • Slight exception? Did you read the article? Did you see their annual revenue? Elsevier owns a quarter of the scientific journal market, and combined with two other similar companies they hold half the market. Their profit margins are obscene. It's ridiculous to say they can't afford it. Smaller journals are not the problem here. They don't have the power to hold entire universities hostage, these companies do.
    – Gabriel
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 1:13
  • You are incorrect. There are approximately 2.5 million articles published every year (stm-assoc.org/2015_02_20_STM_Report_2015.pdf; this is likely to be an underestimate since it only counts English articles). Elsevier publishes 400,000 of those, giving it a market share of 16%. Elsevier's profit margins are not entirely due to journals - the company also operates Scopus, ScienceDirect, etc. You can get a sense of what journal margins are like by looking at another publisher's annual reports, e.g. Wiley's.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 1:32
  • Incorrect regarding what? Elsevier's annual revenue is over £6b. Market share and amount of journals owned by Elsevier are two different things.
    – Gabriel
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 1:37

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