Academia suffers from two fundamental problems. First, that peer review is unpaid (essentially volunteer) work is a travesty. Second, the overproduction of PhDs in recent decades has resulted in poor job prospects for the majority of academics. Our sector has a massive “industrial reserve army” of PhDs on casual, zero hours contracts, with little opportunity to engage in research.
Fortunately, we can solve both problems with a little creative thinking about the academic labor market.
The current model of publishing is, in a word, insane. We write the papers (for free) for the publishing houses; we peer review the papers (for free) for the publishing houses. Then those same publishing houses typeset our papers and charge our institutions an arm and a leg to read what we’ve written and reviewed for them. So, let me get this straight: we do all the hard work, and they reap the profits. When I say “profits,” I mean it. To put matters into perspective, Elsevier’s profit margin is higher than that of Apple, Microsoft, and Google.
“The current model of publishing is, in a word, insane. We write the papers (for free) for the publishing houses; we peer review the papers (for free) for the publishing houses. Then those same publishing houses typeset our papers and charge our institutions an arm and a leg to read what we’ve written and reviewed for them.“
The worst part of the system is that taxpayers who have funded our research generally have no access to our papers because the publishing houses place them behind a paywall.
Now, before you retort, “but you’re an academic and peer review is part of your salaried job,” let me remind you that roughly 70 percent of academics (at least in the United States) are adjunct professors with no job security. To the extent that they engage in peer review, they are volunteers.
This is a nice segue into the second fundamental problem in academia: what do we do about that “industrial reserve army” of PhDs out there?
I have an idea that kills two birds with one stone.
Let’s use the metaphor of competitive sports. We have offensive players trying to score goals and we have defensive players trying to stop goals. Presently, most full-time academics play both offense and defense. I submit papers for peer review and hope to score a goal, but I also play defense in attempting to block poor studies from making it into the back of the net. It doesn’t take a genius to see the conflict of interest here. I’m incentivized to block papers, even if they are good—in fact, especially if they are good. Every time I let a paper through, that’s one less space for my own research.
The solution is clear. We need offensive players who write the papers and defensive players who review the research. If peer review were compensated, then a large portion of that “industrial reserve army” of PhDs could enter gainful employment. They can specialize in defense in the absence of that conflict of interest. Moreover, those of us on offence can specialize in writing and researching, thus freeing up more time to conduct better research. Everyone wins (except the publishing house whose margin might drop from 40 percent to, say, 10 percent).
What are we waiting for, folks? Let’s make it happen!
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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