Peer review is one of the mainstays of scholarly publishing. Most academics concede that there is no substitute for peer review and that it is the gold standard for research assessment. Peer review feedback has often been behind excellent scientific publications. Researchers take up the task of reviewing papers voluntarily over and above their own regular workload. Despite this, lab heads or the institutions with which researchers are affiliated are not known to appreciate or encourage their contribution to science. The reviewers also do not receive any monetary compensation for reviewing – everything is pro bono. Recently, the primary premise of discussions concerning peer review is about incentivizing peer review, acknowledging reviewers, and making their contribution count. While pondering over this issue, a question struck me: Is being a peer reviewer a kind of recognition in itself? Do we still need to consider acknowledging peer reviewers more tangibly?
Journal editors select peer reviewers for their knowledge of a particular field. Thus peer reviewers are perceived as experts and being associated with prestigious journals as peer reviewer is considered an accomplishment for any researcher. Therefore, being asked to do a peer review equates to being recognized as an expert and is one of the keys to a researcher’s professional advancement. Many researchers aspire to become reviewers for this prestige. To explore the global perceptions on peer review, Taylor & Francis conducted a study in which 7438 individuals (including authors, reviewers, and editors) participated. According to the findings of this study, over two-thirds of the participating authors reported that they were never contacted for reviewing but would love to receive an invitation to peer review.
But why should researchers do peer review for academic journals? Being a part of the research community, having advanced access to the latest research, and expanding personal skills and knowledge are possibly the major motivational factors for undertaking reviewing. Further, the Taylor & Francis report revealed that authors between the age group of 20-29 believed that becoming peer reviewers would enhance their reputation and advance their career. This indicates that most researchers, particularly early career researchers, regard peer review as very rewarding and as a way of gaining global recognition.
Despite the fact that many young researchers await the opportunity of becoming peer reviewers, journal editors frequently voice the challenge of finding reviewers who are willing to take on the task and complete it within stipulated timelines. This could be because journal editors usually build a pool of trusted reviewers and may be unwilling to look beyond this pool; or, they may lack the time to look for new reviewers. To make the peer review process smoother, editors should attempt to expand this pool. Whether journal editors consider young researchers (high-quality researchers who are not too old in the system) when thinking of potential reviewers is unclear. But it does seem as though, typically, the more experienced researchers (who may be prone to reject review requests) are invited to peer review and the early-career researcher group that is eager to contribute is ignored. Janne-Tuomas Seppänen, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Peerage of Science, which provides scientific peer review and publishing service, says that, “several journal editors (unofficially) say they prefer to solicit reviews from postdocs rather than from the most senior scientists.” Reinforcing the view that researchers equate being a peer reviewer to gaining recognition, Seppänen explains that early career researchers are aware of the fact that becoming a reviewer would add value to their CV and could help in securing grants or jobs in the future. Hence, they are more likely to accept review invitations, provide timely reviews, and are more thorough in their work.
Peer reviewing is one of the core tasks of researchers through which they can showcase their knowledge and insights. It can also help them connect with established researchers in their field and increase their global visibility. So journals and publishers should consider approaching younger talent for peer reviews. Identifying the need to incentivize peer review, publishers such as Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute and Nature Publishing Group offer various inducements to reviewers—e.g., acknowledgement letters, discounts on publication charges, public acknowledgement in journals—in addition to collaborating with platforms like Publons that maintain a record of the reviews. It might be true that researchers expect rewards beyond acknowledgement for their work, but recognition remains a strong motivational factor behind accepting invitations to review. Climbing the ladder of success in academia is not an easy task and being identified as a peer reviewer is one way for researchers to increase their visibility, credibility, and reputation.