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If you spend enough time in academic circles on the Internet, you find passionate statements that providing free peer review for for-profit journals is exploitation. I have heard this from a distinguished Roman Army scholar who has not been well-treated by his academic employers, and on the birdsite you can find things like this:

a screenshot of a twitter post beginning "Please retweet if you have ever conducted a manuscript review"

Nathan C. Hall: “Please RT if you have ever conducted a manuscript review for a journal while not employed in a tenure-track/permanent academic job. As many peer reviews are done by precarious academics (grad students, postdocs, adjuncts), lack of compensation is basic exploitation.” https://twitter.com/prof_nch/status/1039322066263138304

Now, in my time as a graduate student I have peer-reviewed one journal article, and reviewed half a dozen manuscripts from friends, and I have to say that the claim I am being exploited is absurd. Any wise writer sends their writing to a few trusted friends before they send it out into the world. This is such a basic feature of academic life that academia dot edu built a whole module for it, Princeton and Stanford host a series of Working Papers in Classics, and an Australian economist posts drafts of his books one chapter at a time on Google Docs with invitations for readers of his blog to comment on them. When I agree to comment on a friend’s manuscript, asking them for money would be as offensive as inviting them to my apartment for dinner and then sticking a credit-card reader in their face. Trading favours is a basic part of social relations between equals. As scholarly authors, we read other people’s work (and cite it or review it) so they will read ours. Reading yet another article on a subject is tiresome, but we do it because sometimes it will be our article on someone else’s desk when they really want to go to bed and the recycling bin is so very very close.

So why do so many intelligent, educated people passionately insist on such a daft idea? Most of them are certainly not the kind of people who think that organizing areas of life like for-profit businesses is desirable in itself. The real issue here is precarity. Some people in academe have stable jobs where spending time writing reviews is in the job description and where they have enough pay that every hour of work is not precious. Others have a reasonable prospect of getting those jobs. And a third group is just as qualified but does not have that stable job that pays a living wage and gives free access to books and articles. For the third group, volunteering hours of highly skilled labour is hard to justify. And because academic publishing is such a mish-mash of commercial and personal relationships, and because the underlying economics are not transparent- we don’t know which journal costs $200/year and which $20,000, which has an entirely volunteer staff and which keeps half a dozen managers well-paid, which is barely surviving and which is profitable- it is hard to know when to think reciprocally and when commercially.

If you agree with me that the problem is the gap between the fiction that academics all have well-paid, stable jobs and all journals are run on a tiny budget, and the fact that many academics are precarious and many journals are big business, I do not have simple answers. Someone could try hiring professional peer-reviewers who review an article or two in a broad field every day rather than one in their tiny speciality every three to six months. Organizing the more prosperous journals to pay reviewers a honorarium of a few hundred dollars an article and a thousand or two a book would also be an excellent idea. I also approve of projects like the arXiv which are completely free. If nobody involved is being paid, that makes it clear that this request does not belong in the world of commerce. Paying reviewers might solve some of the problems in academic reviewing such as tardy replies, reviewers who don’t follow instructions, and reviewers who just check whether you cited enough of their own books and articles. (Because peer-reviewing books and articles is invisible, it does not help people’s careers nearly as much as publishing their own work). Academics might also want to look at tensions in other communities where some people are part-time volunteers and others are professionals who need to be paid for their time, such as science-fiction conventions or amateur sports.

I don’t think that any kind of publishing could exist without people volunteering their time to read their peers’ manuscripts, but academic publishing is big enough to pay some reviewers and editors for their work.

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