What do you get if you publish a paper in a highly-ranked journal? Some prestige, certainly. If you’re in academia, it certainly helps your application for tenure, and it’s no bad thing come grant renewal time. Looks good on your CV if you’re applying for another job, no doubt. But how about a big pile of cash?
That is apparently just what you get in some organizations and in some countries. This collaboration between Science and Retraction Watch has the numbers, although I wish that there were more information. For example, the top payout found in each country is listed, but I would also be interested in the median, and in the total number of institutions that offer such bonuses. No countries in continental Europe appear, so the practice seems unknown (or at least uncommon) there. The UK and the US both show up, though, with similar top payouts (in the $6000 range), but again, I’d like to know more about just how widespread this is. To give you an idea, the only two US examples actually given in the paper are the $10 that Oakwood University (Huntsville, AL) gives anyone whose published work gets cited, and the Miller College of Business (Muncie, IN), which pays $2000 for publication in a list of approved business journals. Those would make it seem like direct pay-to-publish is not quite in the mainstream of US academia, but it’s hard to say.
On the other hand, an average payout is calculated for publishing a Science or Nature paper from China: $43,000. The highest bounty offered in that case is an attention-getting $165,000. Other countries where this technique seems to be popular are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Malaysia, and Taiwan. It would appear that these countries (most especially China) are providing money at real incentive levels, while some of the others on the list are giving out “Nice job” awards and pats on the back, on average. One important thing to mention is that the authors of this piece only searched for English-language mentions of such payouts, so there are surely many that have been overlooked.
The next question is whether there’s anything wrong with this idea, and if so, what. It makes me uncomfortable, but that’s not the appropriate measure. As long as the journals themselves keep up their editorial standards, the main effect would seem to be that their editorial staffs must get an awful lot of China-derived manuscripts whose authors are hoping to get lucky. But that would surely be the case even without the incentive payments; those probably just amplify things. There’s a possibility of corruption, if an author were to propose splitting a publication bounty with someone who could influence an editorial decision, but there’s no evidence that this is happening (or has happened).
Otherwise, this seems just to be an overt version of what goes on anyway – if you manage to publish a lot, especially in good journals, you get rewarded. It may well seem vulgar to provide some of those rewards in wads of cash, whose amounts are posted up on the wall, but the more I think about it, the more it feels to me like a difference of degree and not of kind. And if it feels vaguely wrong, somehow, then the rest of the publish-or-perish setup that we’ve been living with should feel that way, too.
Note: I would assume that these bounties are largely an academic phenomenon. Industry has its own incentives, and its own attitudes towards publication in the open literature, making the connections much more direct in a university setting. I’d be glad to get more data on that part of the story, too, though.