Every paper published in an academic journal goes through "peer review". It is sent out to two or three external reviewers, who evaluate the manuscript for originality, sound research methods, and so on. Unfortunately the quantity of manuscripts submitted to journals outstrips the number of people willing to review them, and the system is in danger of breaking down.
The peer review system is breaking down and will soon be in crisis: increasing
numbers of submitted manuscripts mean that demand for reviews is outstripping supply. This is a classic “tragedy of the commons,” in which individuals have every incentive to exploit the “reviewer commons” by submitting manuscripts, but little or no incentive to contribute reviews. The result is a system increasingly dominated by “cheats” (individuals who submit papers without doing proportionate reviewing), with increasingly random and potentially biased results as more and more manuscripts are rejected without external review.
They consider (and reject) the often proposed solution of monetization: paying referees and demanding a submission fee from authors. This, they argue, is a barrier to young academics who may not have the up-front funds to pay for submissions.
Instead, they argue for a new form of currency, "Pubcred."
The majority of journals now use online systems to handle both submissions and reviews. These systems could be used to link number of reviews with number of submissions. We propose that authors “pay” for their submissions with credits, called PubCreds, “earned” by doing reviews. Submission of a manuscript costs three PubCreds, while a completed peer review pays one PubCred. Every individual would have an account held in the central “PubCred Bank.” Their account would be credited when they carry out a peer review, and debited when a manuscript is submitted. Individuals could view their account balance and transaction history on the PubCred Bank web site. We suggest that the PubCred Bank also log requests to review that have been declined, and the reason for declining (the reasons for this are explained below). Critically, submission of a manuscript to a journal would be possible only if an individual’s account balance contained sufficient PubCreds (we discuss this amount below).
The obvious draw-back to this system is that academics tend to write and submit articles in their youth and referee in their old age. What about young authors who have not yet earned enough publication credits?
There may occasionally be good reasons why, even collectively, the authors of a manuscript have not earned enough PubCreds to pay for a submission. Perhaps the sole author is a graduate student, or an academic who happens not to have been asked to review for a long time. We suggest that all authors have a limited “overdraft” facility on their PubCred accounts. We imagine that few if any academics will need to go into debt by more than 10–15 PubCreds, even at the beginning of their academic careers. A period of data collection prior to startup could determine whether this is correct.
One could also imagine a secondary market developing for Pubcreds, with those who referee more often than they submit "selling" their credits either for cash (if credits were made transferrable) or for co-authorship credit.
The liquidity issue is one potential problem with the PubCred system. The other issue is the quality of referees' reports. It's easy enough to write a report, it's hard to write a good one. Since, at present, there is no reward for refereeing other than the intrinsic satisfaction of knowing that one has done a good job, there is no reason to write anything other than a good quality report. Would creating monetary or other incentives to accept refereeing assignments lead to a decrease in the quality of refereeing? Fox and Petchey suggest "Reviewers providing late, superficial, sloppy, or inappropriate reviews should receive no PubCreds for doing so." Perhaps that would be enough to solve the problem.
Fox and Petchey's proposal is one of many designed to ease the problem of scarce referees. The Shakespeare Quarterly has just experimented with on-line peer review. It's a process familiar to everyone who reads this blog on a regular basis - post an idea, and have dozens of people comment on it and scrutinize it. If the idea stands up under public scrutiny, it's worth publishing in an academic journal (though, one could ask, what is the point of doing so?).
Another idea is to solve the problem by generating less research. Proposals along these lines typically go as follows: "Some academics are better researchers than others. In fact, academics in Useless Group should stop doing research and instead devote their energies entirely to teaching." Oddly enough, Useless Group is always someone else - colleagues at lower-ranked universities, older colleagues, junior colleagues, colleagues in other disciplines, and so on.
Finally, the need for referees could be reduced by redefining what is meant by research - perhaps blogging should count?