Opinion: The Misplaced Incentives in Academic Publishing

Scientists who spend time peer-reviewing manuscripts don’t get rewarded for their efforts. It’s time to change that.

Lamentations over the current models of academic publishing come from all corners of the scientific community. How does the system work? The scientist writes up the results of their study in the form of a paper. That paper is reviewed by “peers” (typically other scientists), for a journal. With few exceptions, this is the route necessary to publish work in the professional science ecosystem.


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The arguments against it are many but tend to focus on dubious features of peer review, and the business model of journals that publish peer-reviewed reports of new research. The journals charge institutions for subscriptions, and often individual researchers pay up to thousands of dollars per article for publication. All while the journals use free or low-cost labor from editors and peer reviewers. The related hypocrisy is that these journals are profiting from research paid by taxpayers, funded through federal bodies such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Despite the fact that the public funds much of this work, much of it remain behind a paywall, freely accessible only to those with affiliations at institutions that can afford subscriptions (and the rare individual who can pay themselves), thus eliminating most of the citizen-science public. Many of the journals that do offer free-to-read, “open access” papers do so by charging researchers an exorbitant fee to publish.

But as damning as these charges are, they only capture one aspect of the hypocrisy and irrationality in the academic publishing model. Some of this only became apparent to me after I began to see the process from the other side — that is, as an editor at several journals. And this has forced me to conclude that many of the largest, under-appreciated sins of publishing do not arise from the journals themselves, but from the professional ecosystem that defines modern academia. The incentive structure encourages behavior that reinforces the current broken publication model.

The current system rewards individual productivity far more than contributions to the system that fosters productivity. That is, academic science has created a mismatch between the wants and needs of individual scientists and the effort necessary to run a sustainable scientific enterprise, where the comments from our peers are necessary.

As a junior scientist, I have been advised by mentors to forgo reviewing manuscripts or serving as an editor for a journal and instead focus on my own output. This is excellent advice for a perverted process: Quality peer review is what gives us confidence that the research that we read in journals is of high quality. But the centrality of peer review relies on an assumption that people will carefully evaluate the work of others out of good will, or that authors will acknowledge the hours of work that publications require from peer reviewers by returning the favor.

Surely, scientists’ participation in the process can help their own productivity: Scholars build relationships with editors of journals in which they might publish their own manuscripts, and reading and reviewing manuscripts exposes them to new work. But at best, these benefits are indirect. Plainly speaking, virtually no one in the history of professional science has been promoted or meaningfully rewarded because they provide stellar reviews of others’ work. Those who spend hours improving the work of their peers are often doing so as a favor (or rather, as a “donation”).

The current system rewards individual productivity far more than contributions to the system that fosters productivity.

One need not be versed in evolutionary game theory to recognize how this system selects for selfish behavior — that is, my career prospects are far better if I decide to only produce manuscripts, rather than participate in evaluating them. The problem here can be described in thermodynamic terms: For the system to function responsibly, the energy put in should roughly equal the energy that comes out. Many impactful published manuscripts were the product of work from two or three (or more) peer reviewers. The only way to add energetic balance would be for every researcher to review two or three manuscripts for every one that they publish as a lead or corresponding author (one of the people who led the research effort). Unfortunately, our own interests take priority.

Impressively, the selfishness incentive works for both junior and senior scientists. Junior scientists should focus on themselves because productivity is the key to professional ascendence. For senior scientists, there is no reason to participate because their (often well-earned) job security removes practically any consequences of non-participation. Because of the lack of incentives, even high-impact journals can struggle to find capable reviewers for submitted manuscripts.

Postdoctoral associates and graduate students can and should formally participate in peer review because many are qualified to do so, and because evaluating manuscripts is an excellent training exercise for the developing scientist. But the motivation to include trainees in peer review is not a newfound desire to train junior scientists on all aspects of science. Rather, we need to include them because we are running out of more experienced volunteers, and we must find the labor wherever we can find it.

The reviewer crisis has other pernicious effects. If everyone who is the lead author of a manuscript that gets reviewed does not return the effort, then the resultant math doesn’t math so well: Fewer people review manuscripts than write them. The problem here? The minds that review new work should ideally be as diverse in perspective as the authors who generate the work. This is not a problem of balancing, but one related to innovation: Different perspectives are better equipped to appreciate the vast array of science being conducted around the world.

Without a large and diverse pool of reviewers, a relatively small number of individuals shape the work that ends up in journals. Even if this small fraction of super-reviewers are earnest and trustworthy people, their biases — methodological or otherwise — surely skew the sorts of research that ends up in the pages of our favorite journals.

In the end, pointing out these flaws might be little more than another contribution to the popular academic complain-o-verse. We can pinpoint things about the system that we don’t like, that undermine quality, originality, and inclusiveness. And some of these elements are legitimately difficult to change.

The minds that review new work should ideally be as diverse in perspective as the authors who generate the work.

However, academic publishing is different than many other flawed corners of professional science. And some of the solutions can be achieved with relatively low-effort activities. Payment for reviewing is a popular proposed solution. But some others can be achieved without financial considerations. For example, science deans at elite institutions could gather tomorrow (via Zoom) and decide on a formal way to strongly incentivize participation in all aspects of the publication process. They could acknowledge an unrecognized truth: The scientist who evaluates manuscripts regularly, re-analyzes data, and provides thoughtful and extensive feedback is as much a protector and promoter of original science as the one who exclusively publishes manuscripts on their own. These are actionable areas where leadership can change the conversation in relatively short order. Of course, there are large barriers to anything of this sort being put into practice.

In the end, attempts to rationalize the existing system with arguments such as, “This is what everyone else is doing and what has been done in the past,” cannot be defended by any sort of mature thought. The roads to many sorts of hell are paved with “I just work here.”

I am empathetic. Changing things requires time and energy. The systems that underlie academic publishing are byproducts of decisions and nondecisions from ostensibly smart people who are skilled at revealing the wonders of the natural world. It’s time for us to turn our ingenuity inward, towards the creation of a new system that actively rewards everyone who keeps science alive.


C. Brandon Ogbunu is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and the author of Undark's Selective Pressure column.