Rubriq, Nature Scientific Reports, and paid peer-review

March 28th, 2015

Nature Scientific Reports recently announced that they would be partnering with Rubriq to offer a fast-track peer review service for an additional fee. Of course, they’re careful to say that it will not affect editorial decisions, but there’s more than a little bit of criticism of this as a ‘pay-to-be-published’ deal. This includes one editor’s public resignation via twitter.

I signed up for Rubriq as a reviewer about a year ago, figuring I’d see what all the hype was about. At the time, their business model was to offer pre-submission peer review. In other words, people who weren’t very confident in their abilities could pay to get some feedback on their publication and experiments from someone in the field before sending it off to a journal. In this sense, it’s just like a paid editing or consulting gig. This seems totally kosher to me.

Though it’s taken some heat, I also don’t have a problem with the idea of standardization of peer review. Their checklist isn’t that dissimilar from what a lot of journals use now (rank the quality of the research from 1-10, rank the quality of the writing from 1-10, etc) and includes plenty of space for long-form text critiques of the paper. If they could get all publishers to use this, so that submitting to a new journal after a rejection didn’t necessarily mean getting all-new reviews, that would be a good thing.

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with this next step, though. Payment for peer review that will actually be used by the journal raises some uncomfortable questions. While I have no evidence to suggest that paid reviewers would feel obligated to give good reviews, it’s certainly not a large conceptual leap. Given how much flak science takes from the popular press already, even the appearance of impropriety is something that needs to be guarded against carefully

For what it’s worth, I’ve only been given one paper to review by Rubriq, (well before this deal was announced) and I pretty well ripped it to shreds (politely) before collecting my 100 dollars. I honestly hope that those authors learned something, went back, and tried some of the experiments I suggested. If not, then I feel like their money was wasted, and my consulting fee wasn’t a useful expense for them.

The other part that rubs me the wrong way is that this allows labs with more money to get faster peer-review. That division into haves and have-nots seems counter to the fundamentally democratic ideas underlying the scientific enterprise.

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