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Is reviewers' demand for more experiments justified?

Is reviewers' demand for more experiments justified?

Technology has accelerated the pace of science significantly. However, the pace at which papers are published has decreased over the decades. It takes several months to years for a researcher to publish a paper. One of the frequently cited reasons for the delay is peer reviewers’ demand for additional experimentation. Although such requests are reasonable since reviewers aim to ensure that authors’ claims are supported by evidence, often, this keeps good science from getting published sooner.

In most fields of science, authors are commonly asked by reviewers to perform further experiments. Solomon Snyder, a renowned neuropharmacologist, points out that the journal review process has become prolonged due to such demands for exhaustive experimentation and documentation. This practice discourages researchers from publishing their best ideas since gathering additional data involves added cost and time. Dr. Snyder says that at times, researchers preemptively conduct experiments anticipating reviewers’ suggestions, which can further postpone the paper’s publication. Researchers are under great pressure to get published and conducting reviewer-suggested experiments can have an adverse impact on researchers’ careers as well as prevent good research from reaching the public eye.

Dr. Hidde Ploegh, a professor of biology at the Whitehead Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology comments in his article "End the wasteful tyranny of reviewer experiments" that rather than reviewing the experimental data, referees often design and demand experiments that do not have a dramatic impact on the conclusions. He calls such experiments “reviewer experiments” and notes that higher impact journals seem to demand more experiments; possibly, the referees feel they need to do this to raise the journal’s standard. At times, reviewers suggest experiments that go beyond the scope of the submitted research. As a result, researchers may end up conducting experiments that could have been better studied in a follow-up paper. Dr. Ploegh also states that such practices increase costs for labs without offering any significant advantage for science.

For academic scientists, publication is the way to career advancement. When manuscripts are stuck in multiple rounds of peer review, young researchers in particular are the worst affected since the demand of additional work increases the time it takes to get published and established in their respective field. A possible solution to this problem is that journals should ask their reviewers to only highlight any gaps or flaws in the experiments. If more experiments are needed, they should provide logical reasons for their suggestions. After all, peer reviewers themselves are researchers, so they should be sensitive towards authors’ interests. Journal editors can also play a major role by screening reviewers’ suggestions for experimentation and ensuring that they are justified.

Science is a dynamic field of study; and the best way of advancing scientific knowledge is sharing novel ideas and theories with fellow researchers as quickly as possible. Therefore, journals should ensure that peer review is conducted responsibly and that it encourages swift publication of good research while minimizing the costs for the scientific community. 

Many of you reading this article are authors and peer reviewers. It would be interesting to know your points of view on this issue.

To know how journal editorial process has evolved over the years and what the community can expect from peer review, read this interview with Dr. Irene Hames, a research-publication and peer-review specialist - The peer review process: challenges and progress.

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