When to Say No: Peer-Review Culture & Working for Free

free-labourMany of you will have been following debates about the amount of free labour many academics – and particularly postgraduate and early-career researchers – provide almost on a daily basis. Much more persuasive and articulate writers than me have written about this issue on their blogs, in higher education sections of newspapers, and other online publications. So rather than repeat what has been argued already so competently – namely that academic publishing, and careers in academia more generally, rely on your ability to afford to perform certain professional tasks without remuneration – I thought I would share with you a particularly peculiar and illustrative email I received from a journal this morning. For an illuminating post on the exploitative practices of the publishing house who are responsible for the journal in question, see librarian Jeffrey Beall’s blog, which is concerned with all things open access and scholarly publishing.

welcome_1The subject line of the email I received was the beginning of a downward spiral of unprofessional communication. It read “Welcome letter for reviewers”. I wasn’t surprised about the journal remit, which relates to a recent and substantive publication I’ve edited. However, the fact that the subject line promised a “welcome letter” seemed odd, as I had never had contact with the journal or the publisher before, and a welcome letter seemed to suggest that I had already entered into an agreement and was now being sent a welcome message with further information and guidelines. So far, so odd.

nowosc1Upon opening the message, no detailed knowledge of data protection was required to detect further issues with this strange communication. It was the result of someone simply clicking “forward” on the same email they had sent another scholar previously, and rather worryingly they hadn’t bothered to delete that person’s email address from the forwarded text. From what I’ve managed to find out, it seems unlikely that the address is one belonging to the editor who sent the email, and I’m fairly certain that the previous recipient hasn’t consented to their email address being shared with me, or anyone else, via this publisher (though I’ll be making both her and the sender aware of the issue). Surprisingly, the sender had managed to insert my own name in the email text.

apple-time-to-use-digital-textbooksThe message itself begins with a congratulatory, and ungrammatical, sentence informing me not that I’m being invited to join their pool of reviewers or the editorial board but that I have been “selected” to be a “review member”, and that to “accept” I should reply with certain details, including my name, qualifications, etc. (things I hope they checked before they “selected” me). By now I wasn’t expecting things to improve when I downloaded the “Welcome letter” attachment. And, alas, they didn’t. Not only was this email a prime example of bad form, but it also turned out to be an illustrative example of bad practice among some publishers, and of the exploitative culture which relies on scholars’ desperation to add to their CV and so offer their time and hard-earned expertise for free.

The letter is divided into “Rights” and “Obligations”, and, as expected the two weren’t exactly evenly matched. To avoid confusion or accusations of my misreading these details, I reproduce them here for you to enjoy in full:

Rights

– Reviewers will receive a discount of 20% off the total publication charges.
– Your name and affiliation shall appear on the masthead of our journal in each issue and our website.
– Your CV will appear on our website.
– You can recommend your friends or your colleagues to be our reviewers or editorial board members.
– We can offer a forum on our website for your reviews and short articles.
– You will receive each issue of our e-journal through email.
– As requested, you can receive journals in print only have to pay for the postage of the journals.
– As requested, we can build a link of your website or other websites.

Obligations

– Review about 10-12 papers per year, fill out the reviewing form, and return the form to us in 1-2 weeks.
– Some authors or readers may contact you, you should answer their questions. (not often)
– You can solicit or recommend articles from your colleagues or acquaintances.
– You should help promote the journal at conferences and meetings that you attend.
– You should provide ideas for the direction of the journal.
– We can not offer compensation or remuneration to you for your work for us.
– You should work for us for one year from the date you receive this welcome letter.

sad-face-373395So, where to start? Perhaps with the things that most scholars can easily provide for themselves and for free, such as an online CV, and a space for their short reviews and articles. Or with the fact that reviewing 10 to 12 papers a year (i.e. potentially one a month), each with a turnaround time of one to two weeks, is utterly unrealistic if the journal expects thorough reviews and not just a half-hearted recommendations based on skimming a submission that has taken someone months to write. Note also that the journal hasn’t actually begun publishing yet, so judging its quality and remit is impossible, especially given its website and the lack of information on it.

imagesI should emphasise here that I am a proactive member of the editorial board of the Journal of Gender Studies, and I regularly peer-review for several others. My issue is not with the nature of the work itself; I actually enjoy reviewing and editing. What I take issue with is that this publisher seemingly hopes to attract scholars who need this kind of work for their CVs, possibly to secure a tenured or permanent academic position. These (and other) researchers already give their time for free in many areas of their academic life, and are now being asked by a publisher, who runs an exploitative and highly profitable business, to work just that little bit more for, well, the honour (of being associated with a journal whose merit it is impossible to determine at this point in time), and with “rights” that really do not equate to sufficient reward for the work, or the obligations they enter into if they “accept” their “selection” by said publisher. For all we know at this point in time, the journal may go on to publish some rigorous and groundbreaking scholarship, but its approach to recruiting suitable peer-reviewers and editorial board members is, at this stage, worrying in my view.

PhD ComicsI’m painfully aware that this is one of those occasions on which many who are currently looking to improve their scholarly profile in view of landing an academic job will feel tempted, or even forced, to say yes. Remember, however, that you don’t always have to wait for the right opportunities as you can often also proactively create them, and that when one is presented to you, it often serves us well to remain both critical and honest about whether this is really worth what is demanded of you, that is, whether it is really a good opportunity. This is easy to say for someone with a permanent job, of course, and that is where the vicious cycle of the current academic development trajectory lies. No experience usually equals no job, and experience comes too often at the cost of your time and knowledge but without the financial reward that it merits and that you require to live. How we can tackle this from within the existing system is worth an entire series of posts, and a challenge of which we need to be aware and on which we need to act. Ultimately, in this case I can confidently say that, job or not, I wouldn’t want to be associated with a publisher who communicates in this manner and makes these demands, and neither would I want to be associated with a journal that allows communication of this poor standard to be sent to prospective reviewers and editors.

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

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