Is boycotting peer review reasonable?

A few opinion pieces are doing the rounds arguing that scientists should boycott peer review, especially for paywalled journals. The argument goes that this action is a protest against Big Publishing, because peer reviewers should be paid, and because we should support ‘open science’. I genuinely don’t understand this logic.

Peer review is a community service because scholarship is a community endeavour. Peer review is an important part of an academic’s role. Each individual’s service collectively contributes to a rigorous body of scientific knowledge. This is much better than the pre-peer review days of a single editor deciding on publication (this tradition persists in the desk reject).

A community service is generally unpaid – that’s the difference between a service for the good of the system and a business transaction for individual benefit. Do you volunteer for your kid’s sports club? Do you belong to your neighbourhood watch group? Do you contribute to your local conservation or landcare groups?

Why do you volunteer your time? Do you expect payment for these activities?

Sure, you may not expect actual monetary payment, but maybe you would like some recognition or reward, like a free lunch on a tree-planting day, your name on a plaque, or respect from other community members?

Peer review already carries many of these rewards: discounts on publishing or new books; getting advanced notice of new ideas in your own research field; or simply the altruistic feeling of doing a good deed for your research community.

Personally, I don’t want to be paid for peer review. I think paying for peer review diminishes the non-economic values of the service, and risks people not taking it seriously if they know they will be paid for it (similar problems exist for payments for ecosystem services schemes).

Calling for a boycott of peer review is unreasonable for the system and carries a lot of risk for the individual, especially for students and earlier career researchers. It’s also a simplistic, and naïve, answer to a complex problem, and it overlooks some important nuances of the academic publishing system.

The paywall vs. open access argument is a false dichotomy. It costs money to run a digital journal, and that money has to come from somewhere. Many of our most reputable societies have outsourced the editorial process to publishing companies because it’s too expensive to run themselves. There is no reason to boycott them for this decision.

Yes, we shouldn’t support unreasonable profit-making, or unethical content control. I’ve stopped reviewing for Elsevier journals for similar reasons. But I’ve also stopped reviewing for MDPI journals, an open access publisher, because from my experience, I’m not convinced they always publish rigorous science. I think a more pressing issue lies with the ‘smoke and mirrors’ journals – reputable disciplinary journals, often society-based, that don’t have open access options, don’t let authors share a copy, but do charge page printing fees. This, in my mind, is the most unreasonable of offers, but I haven’t heard anyone discuss the fairness of this model.

What effect will your individual boycott have on the handling editors? At some journals, many handling editors are early- and mid-career researchers, just trying to get some valuable editorial experience. Boycotting review just makes their job harder. But this post suggests that this should be the goal of boycotters, to coerce an editor to step down from their editorial role – this seems pretty unfair, when some researchers might need that editorial experience on their CV to get tenure or promotion.

I’ve been an Academic Editor at PLOS One for more than a year, and I love it. I was invited onto the team and I accepted because I really wanted the experience (I’d applied numerous times unsuccessfully to be an Associate Editor at other ecology-focused journals). It’s been a fulfilling experience and has helped me make some new connections. PLOS is a non-profit company, and authors pay to publish (as far as OA fees go, PLOS fees are reasonable). But unlike many other journals, they also employ a team of dedicated administrative and editorial staff who deal with all the author queries and handling/submission/publishing editorial admin stuff. This makes my role so much less time-consuming, and I’m grateful for it.

The worst part about my role is trying to find reviewers, which can take weeks or months because of declined invitations, often without reason, or delayed/no response from reviewers. Whether intentional or not, this behaviour makes life more frustrating for me and the authors of the paper I’m handling. Do we really need more reviewers boycotting the system?

Most handling editors are working for their discipline, not the publishing company that owns the journal. We invite you to review because we think you have the expertise to identify any potential flaws or problems in a particular paper, not because we want to exploit your labour.

Think about it for a minute. If we all stopped reviewing because we felt entitled to refuse this responsibility, what would happen? Realistically, how do we see scientific knowledge and science communication developing in the absence of peer review? (hint: preprints are not the answer)

I think there are a lot more constructive solutions to the systemic issues of the academic publishing system than calling for peer review boycotts. In particular, journals need to find more equitable ways to cover costs and deal with publication deadlines that don’t disadvantage authors (e.g. many current systems that expect reviewers to review within a couple of weeks…editors take their time to make a decision…but then authors have to drop everything to approve proofs immediately…and then publication happens in the journal’s own sweet time). They also need to have a good hard think about how they justify ‘novelty’, especially when it comes to new ideas and conceptual papers.

But as a reviewer, here are few things you can do to make your peer review experience more worthwhile:

  • Respond to invitations as soon as you can, even when you decline. Suggest another reviewer if you do. If you’re getting too many invitations, you’re probably well-known or highly-cited in your field – take it as a compliment. So recommend your equally-qualified colleagues, postdocs and PhD students, who the editor may not be aware of, when you decline the invite.
  • Ask for extensions. If you want to review a paper, but the journal has given you an unreasonable deadline for your current time commitments, accept the invitation and then write to notify the alternative date you will submit. I don’t know any journal that will refuse your extension. If you don’t request an extension, you will get repeated annoying reminder emails until you submit your review, and you may even be removed from the paper if months go by and you haven’t responded.
  • Get a Publons account. This is an excellent way to keep track of your review service, which you can use for promotion or tenure applications. Many journals now give you the option to automatically register your review with your Publons account, or you can simply forward the ‘Thank you’ email after you’ve submitted your review (note: Publons doesn’t publish your review, or the title of the paper).
  • Don’t publish your own papers in journals you refuse to review for, or those that have questionable ethical standards (you can check a journal’s access ethics via the Sherpa/Romeo website).

© Manu Saunders 2019

13 thoughts on “Is boycotting peer review reasonable?

  1. Bartosz Bartkowski September 8, 2019 / 1:38 AM

    I have stopped reviewing for Elsevier a while ago (they’ve blocked access for German institutions – including mine – in the wake of a negotiation breakdown between them and the German consortium DEAL). Of course, even before I also have stopped submitting anything to their journals. Recently, after 1.5 years or so, I submitted a manuscript to an Elsevier journal again – after long brooding and weighing my options I decided that there really are no good alternatives to this journal for this paper. So I figured, and I’m going to communicate this to the editorial team (assuming no desk rejection), that I will be available for two reviews for them (and only them), after which I’m going to resume my boycott.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken Hughes September 8, 2019 / 5:21 AM

    The part of your argument that I think is key is that “handling editors are are working for their discipline, not the publishing company that owns the journal”. I feel like this is somehow overlooked in many of the arguments I see online for boycotting certain journals. So I completely agree that your other solutions are more constructive than boycotting review which, as you note, primarily causes problems for the editor who is on our side (scientists) regardless of what journal they’re associated with.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. cinnabarreflections September 8, 2019 / 7:32 AM

    Excellent discussion. I was an editor for many years (10 for one international journal and several years off and on for a few other journals, and my experience is identical to yours. I can add that it seems like 10 % of reviewers seem to do 90 % of the work. A few authors, who never responded positively to requests, were even extra persistant in complaining about slow reviews. My philosophy was always to aim at doing a minimum of 2 reviews for every paper I published, and to respond to requests promptly. Peer review to me was a duty (and still is in retirement), and it also serves as a great mentoring tool to help young scientists. Boycotting peer review would seem contrary to one’s own interests! I completely agree with your suggestions!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. michaelrwhitehead September 9, 2019 / 11:13 AM

    Interesting discussion. Don’t want to be a downer…… but!

    I’ve been a frequent (average once every 6-8 weeks) and willing reviewer for some years now, however I hesitate when asked to take on an editorial role-

    “when some researchers might need that editorial experience on their CV to get tenure or promotion.”

    Do you really think this makes a difference? In my years of academic job rejections I have come to believe that these community service roles play very little to no role in whether or not a researcher is likely to get a position. It’s papers and dollars, then students and teaching.

    In light of the scant difference I see service play in securing the next job, and the crushing competition, the only rational move is to do enough to be personally beneficial in developing skills/engaging with the community, and absolutely no more. This is why I have now withdrawn from review until I am in a stable employment position.

    As a researcher with a career stuttering on the early-mid career boundary it is very difficult to feel charitable to a community/system that is so wasteful and harmful to its young human capital.


    • Manu Saunders September 9, 2019 / 12:35 PM

      Perhaps it depends on the institution. I’ve always found that my colleagues and supervisors generally value service contributions, including editorial work & outreach. Of course there are always naysayers, and the recognition may not be explicit, my experience has been that people generally look upon this activity positively. At the end of the day, we need more altruism in the academic system, not less.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. michaelrwhitehead September 9, 2019 / 3:38 PM

    For what its worth, I agree with you about outreach. I think we probably agree on service in a public context, and diverge a bit at the moment on service /within/ the profession.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s