Peer-review is one of the great unseen tasks performed by academics. Most of us do some, for no particular reward, but out of a sense of duty towards the overall quality of research. It is probably a community norm also, as you become enculturated in the community of your discipline, there are a number of tasks you perform to achieve, and to demonstrate, this, a number of which are allied to publishing: Writing conference papers, writing journal articles, reviewing.
So it's something we all do, isn't really recognised and is often performed on the edges of time. It's not entirely altruistic though - it is a good way of staying in touch with your subject (like a sort of reading club), it helps with networking (though we have better ways of doing this now don't we?) and we also hope people will review our own work when the time comes. But generally it is performed for the good of the community (the Peer Review Survey 2009 states that the reason 90% reviewers gave for conducting peer review was "because they believe they are playing an active role in the community")
It's a labour that is unaccounted for. The Peer Review Survey doesn't give a cost estimate (as far as I can see), but we can do some back of the envelope calculations. It says there are 1.3 million peer-reviewed journals published every year, and the average (modal) time for review is 4 hours. Most articles are at least double-reviewed, so that gives us:
Time spent on peer review = 1,300,000 x 2 x 4 = 10.4 million hours
This doesn't take into account editor's time in compiling reviews or chasing them up, we'll just stick with the 'donated' time of academics for now. In terms of cost, we'd need an average salary, which is difficult globally. I'll take the average academic salary in the UK, which is probably a touch on the high side. The Times Higher gives this as £42,000 per annum, before tax, which equates to £20.19 per hour. So the cost with these figures is:
20.19 x 10,400,000 = £209,976,000
(Some people think the sum involved is much greater than this, btw.)
Martin points out one important implication of this -- that academics are donating over £200 million a year of their time to the peer review process.
"This isn't a large sum when set against things like the budget deficit", he continues,
but it's not inconsiderable. And it's fine if one views it as generating public good - this is what researchers need to do in order to conduct proper research. But an alternative view is that academics (and ultimately taxpayers) are subsidising the academic publishing to the tune of £200 million a year. That's a lot of unpaid labour.
Now that efficiency and return on investment are the new drivers for research, the question should be asked whether this is the best way to 'spend' this money? I'd suggest that if we are continuing with peer review (and its efficacy is a separate argument), then the least we should expect is that the outputs of this tax-payer funded activity should be freely available to all.
And so, my small step in this was to reply to the requests for reviews stating that I have a policy of only reviewing for open access journals. I'm sure a lot of people do this as a matter of course, but it's worth logging every blow in the revolution. If we all did it....