TL;DR: Due to Industrial Action, I am currently limiting the number of new, external, unpaid peer-review jobs I take on. I will still take on some unpaid reviews, proportionate to my own use of the peer review system. Beyond that, I’ll decline requests for unpaid reviews. If you’d like to pay me to undertake review work, please request a quote.
I’m a member of the University and College Union. We are in dispute with our employers (represented by the Universities & Colleges Employers Association) over pay and working conditions. The disagreements are wide-ranging. Our pay has dropped by 25% in real terms since 2009. Inflation-adjusted, I now earn less as a Full Professor in 2022 than I did as an Associate Professor in 2009. Our pension, once excellent, has had future assured benefits cut by a third. There are also a series of serious issues concerning casualization, over-work, and gender- and disability- pay gaps.
The Vice Chancellor (i.e. Head) of University College London recently said of his previous VC job in Australia:
“The person in my office who greeted people, opened the mail and made cups of coffee earned more than some senior academics at UCL” - Michael Spence, Times Higher Education, November 2022 (salary at UCL: £365,000)
And it’s not that UK universities are broke; it’s just that they don’t want to spend the money on staff. Tuition fees are over £9,000 a year, and the sector has a £2.4bn cash surplus.
In addition to three days of strikes this month, UCU has now begun Action Short Of a Strike (ASOS).
What does this have to do peer review?
Nearly all the peer-review requests I receive, mainly from academic journals and funding bodies, ask me to commit several hours of my time to thinking deeply and applying my expertise to other peoples’ research. In the case of journal articles this work, for which I do not charge, leads to large profits for publishing companies. In the case of funding bodies, not charging for peer review substantially reduces the funders’ administration costs.
I see the highly-skilled task of peer review as a voluntary part of my paid work as a university employee. I describe it as voluntary paid work, because I receive a somewhat-detailed list of allocated jobs from my employer on an annual basis, and external peer review is not on that list.
Under normal circumstances, I am satisfied with that arrangement. However, while ASOS continues, I will be following the advice of my union and “not undertaking voluntary activities”.
I will still take on peer review on a paid basis, conducted outside my normal working hours (part of ASOS also includes working to contract).
Fair use of the non-charged work of others
As Gavin Buckingham recently pointed out on Twitter, when we submit journal articles or grants ourselves, we make use of the (largely non-charged) peer review work of others.
My initial assumption was that these reviewers are undertaking it as part of their paid work - just as I do when I am not in dispute with my employer. And that, if they were in dispute, I would support their decision to either decline or charge. However, I understand not everyone feels that way. And, more generally, I feel a bit mean saying it. So, starting today, I will undertake a limited number of unpaid reviews on the following basis. Each paper or grant I submit from today counts as one unit. That unit is divided by the number of senior authors (defined as people who would be asked to do peer reviews themelves). So, if I submit an article with four senior authors, that’s 0.25 units. For each unit I accrue through my submissions, I will undertake three uncharged peer reviews (because two reviewers per document is now typical, plus the work of the editor or panel).
I’ll update the scorecard as things come in/