So what about editor compensation?

Internationaal | door Sicco de Knecht
9 april 2019 | As open access Plan S draws closer editors start to re-evaluate the business case of academic publishing, and their role in it. In contrast to common belief editorial compensation is not all that uncommon. In a major investigation ScienceGuide reveals that editors at academic journals can make up to five figure salaries.
Academic Journals displayed in the University Library at Radboud University – Photo: ScienceGuide

Disbelief and displeasure, those reactions as much as summed up the responses to the news that ScienceGuide brought in December, stating that Elsevier was willing to compensate editors to prevent them from ‘flipping’ their journal. A ‘flip’ occurs when editors at an academic journal decide to collectively leave their current publisher, to start a similar new – open access – journal elsewhere.

Is Plan S the death of the Learned Society?

Flipping is not an altogether unrealistic scenario, as was proven earlier by the editorial boards of Lingua (now at Glossa) and The Journal of Informetrics (now at Quantitative Science Studies). Anticipating a larger ‘wave’ of flips, brought about by open access Plan S, publishers worldwide are making sure they do what is within their power to retain the most valuable asset of their publishing model: the editors. But some of these editors are causing a stir in re-evaluating their respective roles in the academic publishing system, and the reward they get out of their work on behalf of journals owned by privately run publishers.

In the most recent issue of the journal Geoforum the editors sum up their lengthy negotiations with the publisher, dating back all the way to 2012. Their issues being the fact that most of the hard work of editors goes unrewarded, the accessibility of academic output originally paid for by the taxpayer and valuing reviewers.

“At their core, our concerns center upon whether or not Elsevier is providing us with enough value to justify the relationship. Elsevier owns the rights to Geoforum and operates the journal, as one would expect from a corporation, with an attention to profitability. On the other hand, the journal is created through many acts of unpaid labor contributed by authors, reviewers, board members, and Editors (though the latter do receive a modest stipend). Collectively we contribute a considerable gift to one another, but also to Elsevier… what exactly do we receive in return for our gift, the contribution of our unpaid labour to Elsevier?” (Editorial Board of Geoforum, 2012: 657)

In the recent editorial the editors state that after years of negotiations an, be it temporary, agreement has finally been reached. The editors at the journal have agreed on a new arrangement that addresses their concerns, amongst which they mention their compensation: “Editor stipends have increased substantially to cover at least part of our labour.”

As the formal starting date of Plan S draws closer both editors and publishers of academic journals set out to re-evaluate the business model of academic publishing. By this they enter a new arena where seemingly self-evident truths are about to be questioned such as: do academic editors get compensated for their work, and if so: how much?

Self-evident truths

Interestingly, most academics snigger at the insinuation that editorial work would come with a compensation, let alone a financial one. It seems to be common knowledge that being an editor is an unpaid job. “I’ve served on editorial boards, advisory boards and countless referee activities and never earned a dime,” former lead open access negotiator on behalf of the Dutch universities Gerard Meijer (Fritz Haber Institute) tells ScienceGuide.

“In the very best of cases I’ve been treated to a conference dinner, being part of some promotional activity on behalf of the journal or publisher,” he continues. Nowadays Meijer is part of the German negotiating team from Projekt DEAL who’s boycott of Elsevier is going into it’s sixteenth month at the time of writing. At an earlier stage he lamented the position of his chemistry colleagues on Plan S stating that the ‘cloning’ of journals – i.e. adding an open access ‘X’ version of the journal – would only benefit the publishers and not the public.

“In the very best of cases I’ve been treated to a conference dinner, as a thank you for my editorial work”
Gerard Meijer - Projekt DEAL

Since the editor plays an important role in the academic process many academics instinctively regard the accompanying work as part of their job. Member of the Utrecht University Young Academy Daniel Oberski, who holds and has held multiple editorships with a number of publishers (Wiley, Oxford Academic, European Survey) explains: “Come to think of it I’ve never been compensated for my work as an editor and I don’t know anybody who does. I consider it to be a part of my work as an academic and hence it was never an issue.”

Being an editor is generally regarded as a compensation in itself. It is a way to generate standing and prestige within your respective discipline. “It can play an important role in the career of academics,” neuroscientist Jeroen Geurts (Vrije Universiteit Medical Center) tells ScienceGuide. “It is one of the ways in which you can increase your so called ‘span of control’ as an academic. I’m not saying it is the only way, but it definitely matters.”

What is an editor?

At this stage it is helpful to briefly outline the different flavours of editorships, and what their respective tasks and qualifications are. Academic publishing is a complicated business and it can be relatively hard to draw comparisons. Just on the topic of ownership and management options vary greatly, from community run platforms, journals in management of learned societies and those owned by minor and major publishing houses.

In one aspect most academic journals do not differ all that much: the editors. Generally every journal has an editor in chief, often accompanied by associate editors. Without exception these positions are filled by, often highly esteemed, experts in the respective field, almost always academics – (associate) professors or emeriti. They lend credit to the publication and run the crucial scientific vetting process.

For one the editor in chief has a final say on which articles get published in the journal and often editors form the social lubricant for the bumpy and overstressed academic peer review process. Nudging peers in their respective fields to take a critical look at unpublished work when repeated request have gone unanswered.

The amount of time spent on these activities can vary wildly, from hours a month to days a week. Mostly this depends on the number of submitted and published articles, and on the (additional) effort put in by editors. As an extension of this the number of editors can also vary. To help with the work journals also have an editorial board, with member numbers that can far exceed the number of editors. These colleagues in the field form an extended shell of primary peer reviewers. Members of an editorial board rarely are compensated.

“ScienceGuide has it wrong”

Getting a sense of what the exact financial arrangements with editors are, is a difficult job – close to impossible. Publishers are keen not to let this information enter the public domain and also amongst academics there is no public discussion about the issue. It is therefore interesting that, once provoked by the insinuation that money does play a role, publishers are quick to downplay the suggestion.

Tom Reller who is vice president of global communications at Elsevier makes a number of statements in response to the news that editors might be offered a raise in compensation. “Nearly all of our 20,000 handling editors are compensated for their fantastic work and conversations about the right amount occur all the time. There is nothing particular about that now in the context of ‘flipping’ journals.”

So clearly it must be self evident that editors at scientific journals get a compensation in the first place, at least at Elsevier. Secondly, Reller states that there is nothing particular about this in the context of the transition to open access – a statement that is evidently refuted by the Geoforums editorial.

In an article on their website the world’s largest publisher indeed states that it has 17,000 ‘high level handling editors’ on a total of 80,000 editors worldwide. In 2017 the number of high level handling editors has increased significantly to 20,000 according to the RELX yearly report. Together these editors handle 430.000 new articles a year on behalf of Elsevier’s 2500 journal titles. Nowhere in the yearly financial reports or on public websites does Elsevier, or most other publishers for that matter, mention editor payments. Repeated request in December 2018 and January 2019 for clarification went unanswered.

A different approach is necessary

Since publishers are predominantly privately owned companies they are not obligated by any law or regulation to disclose individual salaries of employees, let alone compensations (in kind) to their editors. But editors themselves might be more open to share their experiences.

In order to get a scope of the shape, size and form of compensation we spread a short questionnaire through the Dutch Young Academy of Sciences (De Jonge Akademie) and through Twitter asking editors to speak up.

As a result we interviewed dozens of editors on their role, time spent and compensations for being an editor at an academic journal. In order to find as many possible dependent variables we ask them about the amount of time spent on editorial work, whether or not the journal is open access and whether they could share more information on the types of agreements with publishers.

The ultimate motivation

In an article published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry the retired chemist Stephen A. Wise guides the expectations of prospective editors in terms of their compensation. “For most chemistry journals, the editor and associate editors receive some financial compensation for handling manuscripts and for travel representing the journal; however, compensation is generally minimal relative to the time invested in performing their editor duties.”

"The ultimate motivation and reward for an editor are seeing the journal grow with increasing quality and impact within the scientific community.”
Stepen A. Wise

The fact that the financial compensation isn’t a full cost cover shouldn’t be a reason for disparagement according to Wise. “I think most of my editor colleagues would agree that one of the benefits of being an editor is the opportunity to work closely with a great team of editors and editorial office staff to define and guide the journal. The ultimate motivation and reward for an editor are seeing the journal grow with increasing quality and impact within the scientific community.”

Getting your expenses paid

Often editors are compensated in kind or on the basis of being able to declare expenses for editor-related activities. As an editor in chief of the Journal of Cheminformatics (Springer Nature) Egon Willighagen (Maastricht University) gets his expenses for the journal paid. “These funds allow for travel expenses for visiting conferences.” The editorial position is a part time position that runs alongside his normal academic position.

Pieter Coenen (VUMC) is associate editor at BMC Public Health an open access Springer Nature publication. “For this I don’t get any financial compensation but what I do get is a 20% reduced price if I would want to publish in BMC Public Health myself. I don’t think I’d call that a serious compensation. It’s more like paying it out of your own pocket.”

For his work as an associate editor at Cognition and Emotion (Taylor and Francis) psychologist Daniel Lakens (TU/e) received €1600 a year. “The editors in chief are one level above the associate editors, so I reckon they get a higher compensation.” As of 2019 he ended his position at this journal. He is now editor for Meta-Psychology. “This is a free open access journal. The work I do for them is unpaid.”

Funds go directly to my department

Handling all the communication that is involved with numerous individual peer review rounds can become a very demanding job. Therefore it is not uncommon for a journal to hire additional editorial assistance to help with article processing. Typically these ‘managing editors’ are on the direct payroll of the publisher and are paid a competitive salary for an editor.

Full professor Media and Society Rens Vliegenthart (University of Amsterdam) gets compensated to the amount of €8000 a year for his position as editor in chief of the journal Acta Politica (Palgrave, Springer). “The full amount is transferred to our department and we use it to fund one of our PhD candidates for 3-4 hours a week to assist in handling the submissions and such.”

“All in all this is enough to hire my editorial assistant for three to four hours a week.” Even though this isn’t much, in his experience this type of editorial support is far preferable above support from managing editors working at the publisher directly.

This type of arrangement seems to be quite common. ScienceGuide spoke to multiple editors (in chief) who gave us different variations on a similar theme. Often publishers and editors agree on employing one or more assistant editors to help out with the day-to-day business of organising the peer review process, typesetting and such.

Editors receive compensations, in the range of thousands of euro’s, which are used to hire one or more assistant editors. These assistant editors often work for the university or research institute, funded from the compensation but sometimes the salaries provided directly from the budget of the journal. This extra help is of great importance.

The times of plenty

Johan Rooryck, former editor in chief at Lingua, now at Glossa, remembers the times of plenty when being an editor really was a ‘royal’ position. “When I started out as editor in chief in 1999 it was not uncommon to be paid in royalties. An agreed upon percentage of the subscription fees was disbursed to the editors.” He indicates that the amounts were substantial.

“These were interesting deals, for the publisher and for us as researchers,” he continues. “I used these funds to provide a PhD student with a full time contract and conversely the publisher could claim to ‘invest’ in the field.” In totality Rooryck calculates the contract offered €30.000. “That is roughly €20.000 for the PhD position and €10.000 for me personally as editor in chief.”

The agreement lasted for eight years, but after that his interest in the deal started to dwindle. “After that period the agreement on the PhD position was revoked.” At that stage this wasn’t a reason to discontinue the overall agreement, “but it didn’t help for our mutual understanding.” But after this point new associate editors also received ever lower compensations. “Every time an editor was replaced, Elsevier reduced the compensation to maximize their own profit.”

“Every time an editor was replaced, Elsevier reduced the compensation to maximize their own profit.”
Johan Rooryck - Editor in chief at Glossa

At a certain point Rooryck was asked to consider giving up his editor in chief position as well. “ I’m pretty sure that Elsevier wanted to get rid of the ‘old guard’ that was still compensated reasonably.” Now, at Glossa Rooryck receives no compensation at all. “I don’t regret being in this new situation. This is more fair and I’d rather not get compensated than be part of a system where Elsevier goes off with most or all of the profit.”

Avoid dependency on publisher

Similarly former editor in chief of the journal Informetrics Ludo Waltman (Leiden University) and his colleagues judged their situation to be undesirable. Recently the entire editorial board resigned at Elsevier to start a brand new journal at MIT Press. “On a yearly basis I was compensated to the amount of €8000 for my service.” His respective colleagues received nothing as associate editors. “Their work load was limited, associate editors only stepped in when there was a conflict of interest.”

Asked what one can do with this type of compensation Waltman is very open. “The entire amount was added to my research budget through the university.” For this he cites three reasons. “First of all I this is work I did as an editor was, at least partly, work I did during working hours. The salary that my institute pays me is very reasonable. Also, I didn’t want to there to be any direct personal dependency on Elsevier. In other words, I didn’t want my decisions on collaborating with Elsevier to be influenced by personal financial interests.”

“I don’t feel there is need for compensation. We aim to keep the article processing costs as low as possible. That is more important to me.”
Ludo Waltman - Editor in chief at QSS

In the switch from Informetrics to QSS Elsevier acted in good faith and professionally he adds. “Even though we fundamentally disagree the transition was handled very well.” As editor in chief at QSS Waltman doesn’t get a compensation any more, he explains why: “I don’t feel there is any need for that. At QSS we aim to keep the article processing costs as low as possible. That is more important to me.”

Working far outside regular working hours

Philosopher Catharina Dutihl Novaes (Vrije Universiteit) is editor in chief at the journal Synthese (Springer Nature). First and foremost she is thankful for the fact that the mere matter of editor compensation is being raised at all. “I think it is very important that we get a scope on the work that editors do, especially in light of the ongoing open access discussion. This is all nice and well, this whole open access movement, but somebody has to put in the hours of work.”

The editorial work is shared equally with two other editors in chief, who get the same in compensation. “In my case honorarium, which is transferred on a yearly basis, corresponds to roughly 20% of my income before taxes. I have an 80% appointment at my university, and use the extra day to do my editorial work.” Although the invested time varies she estimates this to be about 8 hours a week.

In her opinion there are two options. “We can either pay editors a fair compensation for their work, or do without compensation altogether. The latter also comes with its own downsides.” When asked, editors mention a multitude of reasons for compensating editor personally or through their institute. The primary reason is the mere fact that being an editor takes time – often in relation to the number of publications that are handled. Additionally editorial duties often end up as an evening or weekend task, far outside regular working hours.

Statistician Casper Albers (University of Groningen) holds a position as associate editor at Computers and Education (Elsevier) for which he receives a yearly stipend of $2000. “I also get a free subscription to the journal, which is sort of obsolete since my university also pays for a subscription.”

Like at many universities his department doesn’t have formal rules on how to handle these arrangements. The fact that he personally gets compensated is a matter of principle on one hand, and pragmatism on the other. “I can see that the publication giants are frustrating the transition to open access, that much is clear. But I think Elsevier is going to be around for a while. And when I work for a commercial party, the effort I put in should not go unrewarded.”

"When I work for a commercial party, the effort I put in should not go unrewarded.”
Casper Albers - Associate editor at Computers and Education

Albers has considered adding the stipend to the budget of his research group. “But with these figures it wouldn’t make much of a difference. For example hiring an (student) assistant to help me out with the work would already set me back five times that amount.” In the near future he will take up a position as associate editor at the Journal of Data Science and Visualisation. “This is an electronic and open access journal run by the International Association for Statistical Computing (IASC). It’s an unpaid position and I’m totally fine with that.”

Five figure compensations

One publication that is quite open about its financial dealings is the open access journal eLife. On their website ‘What is costs to publish’ the non-profit organisation, founded Nobel prize winner Randy Sheckman, states that an annual 33% of the publishing costs is spent on payments to editors. A total of £998,000 which is divided over three deputy editors, 39 senior editors and 300 reviewing editors. As to the payment differentiation the website does not provide more information.

Even though it can be hard to ascertain what journals are willing provide in terms of compensation for specific types of editorships many still keep a close shop. But some are very open about it. A job opening on the website of the Pyschomic Society for editor in chief of the journal Behavior Research Methods (Springer) states that the yearly emolument is €16.000. Also: “The Editor’s travel to the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society (including a meeting with the Publications Committee) is also covered.”

In comparison to many of the other cases we heard this might seem to be one of the more lucrative contracts. And although five figure compensations might seem out of the ordinary they are more common than one would expect. ScienceGuide spoke to a number of (associate) editors in chief who’s yearly compensation greatly exceeded the average income of the typical academic. Some editors choose to add this to their research budget, others regard it as personal income. None of these editors wanted to go on record.

An informed collective discussion on compensations

On behalf of the Young Academy of Sciences (De Jonge Akademie) president Belle Derks responds to the findings with an appeal for more transparency. “It is important to work towards more openness on the extremely variable financial compensations for academic editors, also to prevent potential conflicts of interest.”

“In principle there is no argument against compensating academics for their work, especially when it comes to work they do for commercial publishers.” Derks points out the fact that in general academics are over-asked in the first place. “Compensating this additional work is reasonable.”

The provided insight into compensations is not enough to draw conclusions on differences between research fields, Derks concludes. “But it would be interesting to find out whether specific disciplines have different standards. If so, this would only add to the already skewed balance in workload and financial means across different disciplines. More transparency allows us to have an informed collective discussion on what we as a community find reasonable.”

President of the Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) Wim van Saarloos is similarly surprised by the findings. “We are aware of the fact that some editors are compensated for their labour. However, the differences found by ScienceGuide are considerable.” He agrees with his colleague Derks in the sense that he doesn’t see a principal argument against editor compensation. “Editorial work can be a very demanding task. Compensating editors for this is not unreasonable and as the article shows it can be used to hire assistance.”

“Editor compensations should not be directly coupled to the number of published articles.”
Wim van Saarloos - President KNAW

“We do stress the importance of transparency on this issue and it cannot be that compensations are directly coupled to the content of the work, for example in compensating editors per published article.” He stresses that the primary responsibility for creating this transparency lies with the journals themselves.

Plan S demands full transparency

Stan Gielen, president of The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is not altogether surprised by the findings of ScienceGuide. “I know that some of my former colleagues would deposit their financial compensations on an account at their university. These funds were used to finance further research. But not everyone handles it this way.”

As a member of cOAlition S, the coalition of research funders backing Plan S, Gielen can be clear on the level of transparency required under the open access plan. “We demand full transparency on the costs of a scientific journal. This transparency includes an entry on the costs of the review process of articles. Although we probably won’t find out about the remunerations of individual editors, at least we’ll get a grip of the size of the editorial costs.”

"The main thing lacking here is transparency."
Jeroen Geurts - President ZonMw

Jeroen Geurts, president of The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) reiterates the importance of openness. “The main thing lacking here is transparency which is exactly why we as ZonMw support open access Plan S. It holds as one of its main requirements that there should be transparency on the level of costs. Without this information we cannot have a viable discussion on the future of open access publishing.”

Major publishers respond

We also asked two of the major publishing houses, Elsevier and Springer Nature, to respond to our findings. Both publishers acknowledge that editors get compensated and that the amounts can vary. As Tom Reller (Elsevier) states: “The amount to which handling editors are compensated differs. Several factors play a role in the conversations Elsevier has with editors.”

Reller: “This can be prevailing standards in a given market or country, agreements between the editor and his/her university, the number of articles in the journal or even additional tasks of the editor.” Elsevier cannot provide detailed insight into editor contracts he adds. “But the general conditions are closely connected to the expectations we have of editors, as can be found on our editor page.”

Similarly David Bull, vice president of business, economics, finance and political science publishing at Springer Nature states that there is no single policy for editor compensation. “Our diverse portfolio of nearly 3000 journals, across all the research disciplines, means there are different expectations and workloads associated with various editorial roles.”

“These range from ditors in chief who will support a journal on a regular basis, to associate editors or editorial board members, who, depending on the subject matter of submitted manuscripts, may handle relatively few manuscripts or a varying number from one year to the next. This means there can be no one-size-fits-all when it comes to compensation and recognition can vary from larger honoraria and emoluments, to travel grants and conference fees or free subscriptions to journals.”

Academics and publishers have different interests

Frank Miedema, vice rector of research of Utrecht University and open science advocate is also quick to respond to the article. “All of this shows that the interests of academics at institutes and publishers are highly intertwined and that the boundaries between them are very fluid. This is especially problematic because the interests of academics can be very different from those of publishers.”

Nonetheless the fact that many editors do not get financially compensated for their work, or only to a limited level, moves him to draw the following conclusion. “Editors may have financial interests but they also have a reputation to look after. I think the latter is still clearly of more importance.”

Lex Bouter, professor of methodology and integrity at the Vrije Universiteit, was one of the authors of the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. He recognises the fact that reviewing and editorial work are important academic tasks that can take serious amounts of time. “If the work as reviewer or editor fits in the regular working hours covered by the salary of the academic institution there is no need for additional reimbursement.”

“But often that’s not the case, especially being an editor can easily take half a day or more per week. Then a reasonable reimbursement should be considered, to compensate for the extra hours invested or to enable hiring help to make it doable. To fulfil these tasks as a volunteer with no payment for the extra work outside office hours is of course also an option, which in fact seems to be the most prevalent one. As such there is not much wrong with that, provided that the input as volunteer serves to keep the publication fee or subscription rate low.”

"Readers and authors have the right to be able to asses whether the arrangement is problematic or not."
Lex Bouter - Co-author of code of conduct on integrity

Bouter recognised that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but stresses that publication charges and subscription rates need to be a reasonable reflection of the costs of running the journal. “To me – in line with the recently revised Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the dominating principle in these matters is transparency: readers and authors ought to be informed how the journal operates in terms of payments made to reviewers and editors.”

“The reason is that financial reimbursement can lead to a conflict of interest, especially when the amount is substantial. Readers and authors have a right to know to be able to assess whether the arrangement is problematic or not. When the impression is correct that increasing reimbursements of editors serves as a bribe not to flip the journal to open access, that certainly is unacceptable.”

Negotiating space

At this stage it is impossible relate editor compensation directly to specific journal attributes. The limited availability of (public) data simply makes it impossible to pinpoint the exact factors that play a  role. “When it comes down to the question how much editors get paid, the most important factor is their ability to negotiate,” one editor who wants to stay anonymous tells ScienceGuide.

“Also it often comes down to historical precedence,” a director of publishing at a major publishing house tells ScienceGuide, adding that this situation makes it incredibly difficult to come up with an all encompassing policy for all journals within their scope. “As to the amounts publishers are willing to spend on editors there are limits. Mostly they depend on the yearly turnover of the journal. With a larger revenue, there is more room for negotiating.”

The first and foremost condition for a successful negotiation in academic publishing seems to be, ironically, knowledge. Which makes it an even more striking experience to find out that many of the editors we spoke to during our investigation were themselves are completely unaware of the contracts their fellow researchers have with publishers.

Who benefits from obscurity?

All of this brings to memory the times in which both publishers and institutes refrained from revealing the contracts they signed on journal subscriptions. Multiple freedom of information requests eventually led to the revelation that there were the huge disparities in the amounts institutes paid for access to academic journals. All with one party benefiting from this obscurity: academic publishers.

Leaked Elsevier contract reveals pushback on open access

On the basis of our findings one cannot conclusively state that financial compensations play a role in the transition to open access. However, what it does show is that there is a significant amount of leeway for both publishers and academic editors to use the financial negotiating space to their advantage.

Although ScienceGuide made several attempts, co-editor in chief at Geoforum Robert Fletcher (Wageningen University and Research) we were not able to reach him for further questions on the matter.


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