The 450 Movement
I do peer review and I want you to pay me four hundred and fifty dollars. I’ll even say please.
It’s amazing how quickly a perspective can change.
I thought I’d be an academic forever, maybe longer.
That was Plan A.
For all its ridiculous foibles, and the resulting incipient hair loss, and for my many, many attempts to kick its shins, it was still Plan A. I liked it well enough.
But I never wanted to be ‘an academic’.
I wanted to be ‘a scientist’.
And there are flavours of that.
Plan B was always working in wearable tech, wearable physiological data, wearable device design. I’ve been around things which go beep a lot, more than a decade. I’ve used everything, measured everything, broken everything, and generally gone from muddling my way through to being the full-stack equivalent of a wearables weirdo. Every conceivable way you can get data out of a person without puncturing them, I’ve used it.
The Plague didn’t help. Higher education institutions, research institutions, etc. — they’re in A Right State. They never saw this coming, and it blindsided them, utterly. Many of them will hit the rocks, and soon.
So, I got a job at a company building medical wearables for physical therapists.
(Side note: I work here, and my job is pretty great. I’ve always derived a tremendous amount of pleasure from building a physical object, and being able to build a wearable device is… well, it makes me wonder why it wasn’t Plan A. We’re hiring engineers right now and I have to resist the temptation to give people advice for life which consists of “Hey, stop vacillating and start work here.” If you’re an engineer in Denver, call us.)
Having a ‘corporate job’ hasn’t made me dress any better, but it has certainly has changed my perspective on things.
And yesterday, I had a very odd experience. I was clearing out my personal inbox, which has hundreds of unanswered emails, and I found a review request from a journal.
My first thought was: oh, I should hurry up and send them a contract.
That’s my world now.
We need advice? We find a consultant.
We like the consultant? We sign an NDA, so we can talk freely.
We have a productive conversation? We draw up a contract.
Or, maybe we do spec work for someone else? The other way around. But, again, it ends with contract.
We want something done, we pay for it. The rules apply to us. A little company in a big world. Maybe not a little company for very long, if I have anything to say about it, but we’ll see about that.
This is how commercial relationships are conducted. It is straightforward and ubiquitous. The result is often no more complicated or mysterious than a regular bank or wire transfer. You buy goods and services.
And then, contemplating drawing up a contract to perform a peer review, I realised simultaneously both the utter normality, and the astonishing weirdness of this thought.
And then I laughed myself sick, and had another cup of coffee.
… then I sat down,
wrote up a contract,
shined it up a bit to reflect the fact that it was for peer reviewing,
stuck my tongue firmly in my cheek,
and sent it to the accounting department of the journal group.
A certain irony is: I don’t really need the money now.
But forget me. I don’t matter. This is about you.
This is about your rent, and your tenuous academic job, and your time taken out of your own workflow with increasingly rapid review requests, accommodated in an environment where you have to produce research even faster, and to teach more classes of increasingly anxious students.
Now, you can call this ‘exploitation’ or ‘efficiency’, that depends on your perspective. But the inarguable fact is that academia is a increasingly casualised, difficult, moribund place to work. It squeezes people into dust, and usually people far less able to defend themselves and headbutt circumstances than me.
This is, and I cannot overstress this, awful.
The only people who don’t understand this, and you can check their public resume because they’re usually very proud of it, are people who got tenure during the Taft administration.
These are the only people yammering on about ‘service’ and ‘values’. Everyone else needs the money, because they don’t have a stable full-time job to leverage against.
Ever met a homeless graduate student? I have.
What about someone who couldn’t ‘afford’ to be an academic any more? Yep.
An adjunct who got their classes cut then didn’t have an income? Again.
A pre-tenure professor worried about the debts that got them there? Course.
And now, The Plague. This will get a lot worse.
I’m going to repeat that. This will get a lot worse.
Now, there’s no call to arms here. I’m not going to make the claim that ‘people don’t deserve this’. They don’t, but that’s not the point. The universe is a smelly old thing which has plans for trampling ‘deserve’. We would wish it otherwise.
I am going to make the claim, however, that in our bold new astonishingly tenuous academic hellscape, this is a straightforward matter of commerce. Fiscal reality.
So let’s talk about that, and why I want four hundred and fifty dollars, and why I think you should have four hundred and fifty dollars too.
My corporate consulting rate is $250 USD per hour. In some circles, that’s unthinkably large. In others it’s embarrassingly small. Pick your poison.
My academic consulting rate is a lot lower, and if I’m being honest with you, I hardly ever charge it. Desperate people have turned up trying to get out of analytical holes, and I simply cannot bring myself to take their money. I just help them. Which is what I would have done if they had just asked, anyway.
So let’s bear in mind as well that while this is academic consulting, journal groups have more money than God. You can read the hundreds of articles about that have been published since… forever. It’s boilerplate. Everyone knows that.
So throw all that together and we can start from some estimate that’s… let’s say $50 to $150 ph. Ballpark.
(Bear in mind, you have to pay legit tax out of this — 15.3% self-employment, plus whatever it adds to your income, which means it’s adding to your highest bracket. For me, this means I’ll keep a hair over half of it. That’s one of the reasons contracting fees are often higher than you’d think.)
Now, I estimate I will spend three to nine hours reviewing a paper. I am quite annoyingly meticulous, actually. This includes responses and editions and wrangling with journal management systems, and everything.
So if we put the low with the high, and the high with the low we get… $450, actually, both ways.
Give me four hundred and fifty dollars.
Universities, throughout every decision they’ve ever made in the last 30 years, have made it very clear that they are businesses. You work for a business. A university may claim to have higher values and they may blather on about them more often, but it is an institution run by professional business administrators. Often they used to work at large banks, hedge funds, higher levels of government, other financial institutions, et al.
Students are customers. Good staff who bring in grant money are assets. On and on it goes. They aren’t joking when they use this language.
Journals, as privately owned or publicly traded companies, have made it even clearer. They publish P&L statements. They have investors, and boards of directors, and they calculate revenue growth, and operating income. Part of their revenue growth and operating income is made out of your research.
So, you work for a business, and a journal is a business, and — under what is at the very least a quasi-commercial agreement — that business is asking for your time to ensure the quality of their core product?
Cool. We are all jolly and mercantile together then, aren’t we?
They can pay you four hundred and fifty dollars.
I have no call to arms, no banners to shake at the sky.
I am not ‘a radical’, I oscillate between poles of the maintenance of basic human dignity, and free speech (I need that one, I can be… Robustly Australian at times).
I don’t want to ‘change the world’.
I’m not the slightest bit upset writing this. I am not angry.
I’m not sticking it to the man.
I am a person with a set of skills, in a commercial market, skills that other people offer to pay for all the time.
I want to be compensated for my labor in the same way any other grinning fool in LITERALLY ANY OTHER COMMERCIAL CONTEXT ON THE ENTIRE PLANET WOULD BE.
I want four hundred and fifty dollars.
Give me four hundred and fifty dollars.
Wait, aren’t you that open science guy?
But many, many journal groups obviously don’t want what I want.
They want to publish research within a closed environment, not building community resources, not making processes transparent, not sufficiently weeding out bad research, etc.
This is because they don’t care. Some combination of (a) they have no commercial pressure to do so (b) they don’t care (c) it’s too hard (d) they don’t know it’s a good idea.
They are companies. Their fiduciary responsibility is to their shareholders. As far as they are concerned, they owe you nothing as a community resource.
So why would you demand anything from them except money? Clearly it doesn’t work very well, or something might have changed in the shinty-six years we’ve been talking about it.
Help people. Help the community. Bill companies.
What about community journals, not-for-profit journals, and society journals struggling to get by?
I will review their papers. Even now, in my often-dilapidated corporate state. Quickly, and well, and for nothing. It will not even occur to me to charge them money. That is unthinkable and unfair.
Aren’t you holding up the work of people who need the publications?
No. I am offering the journal group the chance to employ me. Wherever possible, I will tell the editor that this is happening. It should take no longer than a regular review acceptance. Either party is entirely entitled at any point to tell me to go fuck myself, and this is FINE. Contracts are often not established for a variety of reasons. This is just A-OK.
If *I* did this, wouldn’t I get in trouble?
From who? Who are they going to rat you out to, your mum? They just asked for a commercial arrangement, you provided one. And they’re going to complain if they don’t like it?
If we put on our Business Hats, let’s think of:
- investment (reviewing papers takes ages and prevents you advancing your career, making money elsewhere, or sitting on the couch and staring happily at the ceiling) and
- return (thankless task, where how many papers you reviewed and how well you did that job counts for nothing). And yes, I know about Publons, where you can see all the reviews I did for free.
Peer review has almost no determination over jobs, tenure, or promotion. Journal editors, especially fancy ones, will lie right to your face and tell you that it’ll ‘get your name in front of the right people’.
It won’t. Or, at least, if it does, it’s vanishingly uncommon.
Peer review has almost no immediate career benefit at all unless you literally steal the manuscript. (Don’t do that.)
The only reason you should do it is to support the community, right?
GOOD. DO THAT. Here are five ways you can do “service” right now:
- Write to an editor at a small community journal and offer to review manuscripts within an area of mutual interest.
- Come up with a sci comm seminar and teach it at a local school.
- Put a statement on your faculty website that says ‘I will help any graduate student, within reason, for free, with no questions asked’.
- Offer to read people’s resumes or conduct mock job interviews.
- Set up email alerts so you can capture and review preprints in your area.
But people don’t do this shit, because it’s work.
Or it isn’t fancy enough for them.
Perhaps they simply like the idea of their opinion being important in the right context. Their idea of service is somehow confined to reviewing for prestige journals only. And never replying to the emails I sent as a graduate student.
I’m an editor and you’re really pissing me off.
So write to someone within your journal’s organisational structure, someone that works for the publishing company that owns your journal and gets paid to do that work, and tell them to pay me.
If you don’t know who that is, I guess that’s a lesson in how utterly divorced they are from you — you’re working for a company for free, and you don’t know a paid representative of your employer?
You’re a stooge.
(Also, I can guarantee that reviews you pay me for will be superb. You’ll be so happy. Just, you know, when your overlords pay me four hundred and fifty dollars.)
Do I have to charge four hundred and fifty dollars?
No. It’s a contract under negotiation. That’s where it starts. You determine where it ends.
What will you do when you get four hundred and fifty dollars?
Probably buy a bottle of rye (I’m out) and give the rest to Rosie’s Place.
What happens when they don’t pay you?
… then I don’t get paid. You must be new at this.
They WON’T pay you, you know that, right?
OK, Mystic Meg. Glad you can read minds.
Seriously: business environments change. Why do you think they change? Magic? The waning of the season? No, you patronising div. Market pressure. I’m just some gink…
… but I wonder what would happen if I brought along several thousand of my best friends?
WHERE’S THE CONTRACT??
https://osf.io/tvdcg/ <- there.
Now, bear several things in mind.
(1) I’m so incredibly not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. It’s a sample or a template.
(2) This is very US specific. Sorry, I don’t work elsewhere.
(3) Let’s find someone with contract law experience to make sure it’s 100% kosher before handing it out willy-nilly. I can’t even remember where I got the stimulus material.