Privatising the Peer Review Process?

I spent last week scouting for sunfish and generally enjoying the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastline, despite the idiosyncratic Welsh summer weather (which eventually led to me abandoning tent for the second time in my life!) So, relaxed and windblown, I thought I’d ease back into things by posting on my colleague Owen Petchey plan to fix the peer review process by privatizing the reviewer commons, just published in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Owen and Jeremy Fox start by outlining their concerns with the peer review in its current form:

The peer review system is breaking down and will soon be in crisis: increasing numbers of submitted manuscripts mean that demand for reviews is outstripping supply. This is a classic “tragedy of the commons,” in which individuals have every incentive to exploit the “reviewer commons” by submitting manuscripts, but little or no incentive to contribute reviews. The result is a system increasingly dominated by “cheats” (individuals who submit papers without doing proportionate reviewing), with increasingly random and potentially biased results as more and more manuscripts are rejected without external review.

Their solution is to privatise these commons, through a system of PubCreds: researchers would earn credits for reviewing manuscripts, which are then required to ‘pay’ for submitting their own papers:

We propose that authors “pay” for their submissions with credits, called PubCreds, “earned” by doing reviews. Submission of a manuscript costs three PubCreds, while a completed peer review pays one PubCred. Every individual would have an account held in the central “PubCred Bank.” Their account would be credited when they carry out a peer review, and debited when a manuscript is submitted. Individuals could view their account balance and transaction history on the PubCred Bank web site. We suggest that the PubCred Bank also log requests to review that have been declined, and the reason for declining (the reasons for this are explained below). Critically, submission of a manuscript to a journal would be possible only if an individual’s account balance contained sufficient PubCreds…

Jeremy and Owen develop this idea in more detail, and consider how some of the technical and philosophical obstacles to implementation may be overcome (for instance, the possibility of overdrafts could ensure that publication of important work was not delayed because of a shortage of recent reviews). But they emphasise that:

…potential drawbacks to our proposed system must be weighed against the actual drawbacks of the current system, which are widely recognized and increasingly serious.

I think it’s an interesting idea, and, despite a congenital knee-jerk opposition to all forms of privatisation (I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain…) I suspect I would probably do OK from it – my reviewing balances my writing reasonably well at the moment. It does seem to be all-or-nothing though: it’s difficult to see how it could ever be trialled without the full involvement of at least a large majority of publications within a field.

Also, just as academics play games with impact factors, inevitably strategies would develop here too. For instance, given that PubCreds can be shared between co-authors, might we see clubs of authors develop, some of whom specialise in reviewing, whilst others do the research? But, having relatively recently taken up editorial positions with a couple of journals, I do agree that finding suitable reviewers is a pain, and so some kind of initiative to incentivise the process would be welcome.