Do authors really value and respect peer review as much as they say they do?

Do authors really value and respect peer review as much as they say they do?

Late last night, I was contemplating the theme of this year’s Peer Review Week – quality in peer review. As bits of conversations with colleagues and phrases from posts I’d read about peer review (such as this) flashed by, I found myself thinking about this:

What merit do authors see in peer review?

I think by now we all pretty much agree that peer review is an integral part of scientific publishing, for it not only weeds out questionable research but also ensures that the research being published is of high quality. Ask authors whether they prefer to publish their paper with or without peer review, and they are most likely to say they would rather have their paper reviewed than risk submitting/publishing a paper without it. After all, peer review is a nod from peers in the field that the research is a valuable addition to the existing knowledge on the topic in question. Moreover, peer reviewed publications carry the weight of authenticity and as such have a bearing on researchers’ careers.

Peer review acts as a quality check for manuscripts. Having someone from the field pick at a research paper before it becomes public can save authors from putting out papers with flaws. And while a peer reviewed manuscript may still remain open to readers’ speculation, it instills confidence in authors as their manuscript has been scrutinized and polished. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most authors appreciate peer reviewers’ contribution in creating better versions of their manuscripts.

Although most authors seem to value peer review, some (mis)use it to their advantage. Recently, I came across an opinion piece, which highlighted the ways in which authors push the ethical boundaries of academic publishing. Some authors, the writers describes, “game” the peer review process by submitting their manuscript in a high impact journal knowing that their submission stands a high chance of rejection. Their intent is to access quality peer review comments that the authors view as “free tools for manuscript maturation.” Thus, a rejection from such a journal is beneficial and can immensely help the manuscript’s submission in their actual target journal. The other scenario they describe is that in which authors submit to a medium-impact journal and if it gets accepted by that journal, they withdraw the manuscript in order to submit it to a higher impact factor journal.

In both these cases, the reliance of the authors on peer review to assess the quality of their manuscript is evident. However, their perception of peer review as a mere tool is problematic at several levels. Peer reviewers are researchers much like the authors themselves who, probably have ignored a few mails and pushed away a few documents, to make time to go through the authors’ paper. Now if authors decide to unethically withdraw the manuscript and submit it to another journal, another set of reviewers would have to spend time poring over the same paper. With the availability of only a small pool of peer reviewers, this practice can put immense burden on the entire system.

A majority of authors agree that peer review aids in the improvement of their manuscript’s quality. But when concerns around the quantity of publications top those around the quality of literature being put out, we see instances of peer review manipulation. Authors desperate to get published often exploit the loopholes in the process to jump the wall (i.e., peer review) between submission and publication. When peer review is targeted as a soft spot, it undermines the system as a whole.

The difference in the way authors perceive the value of quality peer review could be a result of several aspects. The results of a large-scale survey that Editage conducted highlighted the problems authors pointed out about the process – the expertise of reviewers selected by journals, unclear peer review feedback, the need for a fairer system, etc. I also feel that the culture of academia that tends to value the volume of publications and the ranking of journals they are published in also plays a role in shaping the perception authors have about peer review.

But the fact remains that quality peer review is valued by authors and academia at large, and peer review is here to stay. Needless to say, the ecosystem of peer review is based on trust. Authors trust the reviewers to provide quality inputs, editors trust the reviewers to help them decide which papers deserve to get published, and readers trust peer reviewed literature to be credible. Therefore, let us collectively appreciate the responsibility peer review shoulders in upholding the quality of published literature.  

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