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Why is peer review so slow? The first step: identifying peer reviewers

Dr. Helle V. Goldman | Apr 6, 2015 | 10,385 views
Why is peer review so slow? The first step – identifying peer reviewers

Many readers of Editage Insights are authors eager to improve their chances of having their work published by studying the advice of experienced professionals in editing, writing and associated fields. If they’ve submitted manuscripts to journals, they may have become aggrieved waiting to be informed about the fate of their manuscripts. In this article series, I explain one of the main causes of delays in journal peer review and editorial decision-making, from the editor’s point of view.

In its simplest form, the peer review process can be depicted by a flowchart like the one shown below, typically including a box that says “Manuscript is peer reviewed.” To the left of this box is one that says “Author submits manuscript” and to the right is a box labelled “Editor makes a decision”. 

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However, the peer review process is not as simple as the flowchart looks. At Polar Research, the most time-consuming – and often frustrating – task is rounding up peer reviewers to evaluate submissions and then waiting (sometimes in vain) for the promised reviews to materialize. The “Manuscript is peer reviewed” box in fact bulges with difficulties.

I’m going to bypass larger questions about peer review: whether it’s fair, whether it really works as it’s supposed to, and so on. These are important questions but they are not the topic of this series. Instead, I’m going to focus on the nitty-gritty of selecting potential peer reviewers for a submission and finding two or three who are willing to review it. As I explain, this process can take much more effort – and time – than authors imagine.

Identifying peer reviewers

The first step is to identify potential peer reviewers—researchers who are a good match for the submission. Some journals have a pool of loyal peer reviewers to whom the editors regularly assign submissions. This probably works well for journals with fairly narrowly defined scopes. For a multi-disciplinary journal like Polar Research, which receives submissions from a wide range of sciences and other disciplines on subjects spanning the optical properties of sea ice to the mating habits of polar bears and early 20th century aeronautical expeditions in the Arctic, maintaining a pool of peer reviewers with the necessary expertise to evaluate so many different topics isn’t feasible. Though we’re glad to approach reviewers who have served us well in the past, we’re also continually seeking new reviewers to cover the diverse topics of the submissions that we receive.

We employ several means to identify potential reviewers. Right off the bat, colleagues at our various institutions or other people in our networks may leap to mind. We also look through the manuscript’s list of bibliographic references for names of authors who have published on the topic. Using search terms drawn from the title, the abstract and our own knowledge of the subject, we use the Web of Science (WoS) to hunt for more researchers who might not be cited in the manuscript. The WoS is also a handy tool for finding out more about the authors listed in the reference list as well as for checking if a potential peer reviewer has co-authored with one or more of the authors of the current submission.

Sometimes authors suggest potential reviewers. While this would seem to be a favour to journal editors,  a few dastardly authors have used this as an opportunity to have their papers reviewed by their buddies or even, in particularly daring instances, by the authors themselves.1 Enough cases like this have come to light to cause some editors to avoid author-suggested peer reviewers like the plague. 

At Polar Research we do consider author-suggested peer reviewers. Without meaning to impugn the integrity of our contributors, we routinely screen suggested names using the WoS and other means to confirm that the suggested reviewers have the relevant expertise, that they haven’t recently or regularly co-authored with one of the authors of the current submission and that they’re not at the same institution as any of the current manuscript’s authors. If everything looks ok, an author-suggested reviewer may be invited.

Note, however, that it’s very rare at Polar Research for a paper to be reviewed exclusively by peer reviewers suggested by the authors. Occasionally, one of the two or three experts reviewing a paper is a person who was suggested by the author. Usually none of the author-suggested reviewers ends up reviewing the submission. This is because we editors often identify reviewers whom we believe to be better qualified. Also, when invited, even author-suggested reviewers often turn us down.

In my next articles, I will describe what happens after potential reviewers have been identified and discuss why researchers turn down peer review invitations.

1. Furgason C, Marcus A. & Oransky I. 2014. The peer-review scam. Nature 515, 480-482.

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