On #PeerRevWk16: An Entirely Cynical Perspective

N. C. Hall  /  12/10/2016

#PeerRevWk16 is an annual effort by academic publishers to bolster flagging peer review participation, quality, and speed through explicit statements of thanks and recognition.

Although this initiative could be viewed as a face-valid effort by a public service industry charged by governments and post-secondary institutions with the sacred, inestimable responsibility of research dissemination, there are major ongoing issues underlying academics’ reluctance concerning peer reviews that this initiative does not discuss. From huge publisher profits afforded by gouging public institutions and not meaningfully compensating academics to unjustifiably high open access fees and peer review patents to stifle competition, there are serious systemic problems underlying the peer review process that this hashtag effort does little to address.

Basically, I started to feel uncomfortable seeing publishers attempt to dominate a hashtag ostensibly “for” academics with tweets containing marketing-department infographics on what academics want, promoting a new reviewer ratings system, or sharing “how-to” guides to cost-effectively improve the quality/speed of free academic labour. In response, it seemed important to balance this profitable status quo narrative by highlighting the uncomfortable realities of the peer review process for academics. I am by no means an expert on higher education policy/ethics/economics, I just wanted to share information and balance the discussion about how to promote research quality by better supporting those who do it.

It all started a few weeks ago when I first noticed tweets from academic publishers pop up in my timeline underscoring the importance and novelty of thanking peer reviewers as well as quantifying/ranking peer review efforts:

In typical fashion, I responded with flippant sarcastic commentary, thinking it to be an obviously transparent (and hopefully temporary) publisher effort to pacify volunteer reviewers with a pat on the back and self-relevant data:

But this weird gratitude parade only seemed to ramping up and it got me thinking more seriously about the motivation behind these reviewer appreciation efforts:

As a good academic, I supplemented these devastating hot takes with references to external sources outlining the growing dissent concerning the publication process:

With such an eviscerating response to this uncomfortable wave of public publisher affection, I thought my job was done. However, I soon realized there was an actual hashtag for this initiative – #PeerRevWk16 – and an entire week to come of publisher efforts to spam Twitter with pre-scheduled, strategic gratitude PR aimed at thanking academics by educating them as to their peer review value and responsibilities.

Some #PeerRevWk16 publisher tweets hoped to inform researchers of the importance of peer reviews as the cornerstone of scientific inquiry, as if they were somehow not addressing individuals who by definition should be not only intimately familiar with the scientific process but have based their research careers largely on this premise:

Other tweets expressed heartfelt thanks to reviewers for their time and effort through mass cut-and-paste “publishers are people too” gestures garnering remarkably few RTs or replies:

Publisher spam also included regularly scheduled marketing-office infographic blasts educating academics about why they do (read “should do”) peer reviews, with most results ironically showing academics to have already decided on better ways to spend their time:

And then there were the tweets consistently promoting the new reviewer recognition system “Publons”; a publisher-owned effort to bolster peer reviewer commitment by tracking, quantifying, and ranking peer reviewers:

But perhaps the most condescending #PeerRevWk16 tweets were those gently informing academics as to how they could better perform their free publisher labour:

So I admittedly got a bit snarky:

And being on sabbatical, words were soon diverted from manuscript revisions to countering this increasingly awkward, oblivious, and patronizing publisher narrative implying that problematic peer review disengagement could be remedied not by meaningful compensation or real talk about peer review costs, but by a Twitter campaign aimed at educating, flattering, and shaming academics. Again, I’m not an expert on the academic publishing industry, but it seemed important to share some thoughts on issues that were clearly being avoided such as:

1.  The peer review burden on vulnerable academics:

2.  The ethics of peer review compensation:

3.  In-store credit as review compensation:

4.  Financial compensation for peer reviews:

5.  The exclusion of industry expertise:

6.  Peer review sampling bias:

7.  The “gamification” of peer review:

8.  My personal review perspective:

9.  Public perception of publisher appreciation efforts:

So while the #PeerRevWk16 initiative does on the surface present as an effort to simply thank and support peer reviewers, a quick consideration of the academic publishing landscape suggests that it may also represent an effort to whitewash growing public discontent over a massively profitable industry that does shamefully little to show respect for the free academic labour on which it relies:

So for good measure, I doubled down with @AcademicsSay to better punctuate the #PeerRevWk16 publisher noise:

Even Nature got in on the fun:

And despite publisher-provided highlight reels of #PeerRevWk16 in which most of the above is effectively excluded, the narrative that resonated most with academics was obvious:

As to where to go from here, there were a few thoughts:

Maybe it’s just me, but this hashtag effort at best seems intended to distract from publisher problems or promote new publisher products. At worst, it seems a fundamentally misguided attempt to sustain profits by increasing peer review engagement among (a) inexperienced, less expert academics not yet familiar with the scientific process, (b) early career researchers trying any way they can to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their time and energy to potential employers, or (c) already overburdened academics disillusioned with the publication process who need and will take the self-esteem boost despite its patronizing tone.

Is a thank you from publishers for peer reviewing appreciated? Perhaps, but that’s not why we do it. And as a transparent attempt to placate a base increasingly dissatisfied with publishers profiting from their good will, institutional/disciplinary pressure, and passion for science, the #PeerRevWk16 effort kinda looks like using the “tip” section of a bill to provide actual tips on how to serve publishers better:

Of course, I might be entirely off-base in interpreting #PeerRevWk16 as anything other than a face-valid attempt to show some much-needed appreciation to hardworking volunteers. But as a leading authority on pandering to academics on Twitter, I can safely say that academic publisher trolling could use some work.