Is the trust in peer review broken? A holistic look from the author's, reviewer's and editor's perspectives
Trust is the underlying factor for the key stakeholders in the publishing cycle—researchers, journal editors, and peer reviewers. As we will see, trust is at play at various touchpoints of interactions among editors, researchers, and reviewers. Therefore, this is also where there is a potential for trust to be compromised. In this article, we look at all three perspectives and deep dive into the factors that bring the reliability of peer review in question.
Trust from an author’s perspective
Researchers trust editors to select the best reviewers to help make the manuscript a better version of itself. In turn, they also trust the reviewers to maintain confidentiality as well as provide a fair judgement and constructive feedback for their work. However, in this journey to publication success, the well-meaning researcher sometimes goes astray. It is a well-known fact that academic workload has steadily increased globally. Although the “publish or perish” culture is looked down upon, researchers’ success largely continues to be assessed based on the volume of their publications and the reputation of the journals they publish in.
This leads to unhealthy competitiveness where researchers race to write papers often and publish them quickly, which can affect the quality of publications. Worryingly, some researchers even end up choosing unethical ways of publishing by indulging in malpractices such as plagiarizing from other papers, slicing a set of results into several papers, and in extreme cases, peer review manipulation. This can result in compromising the trust that the other two key stakeholders—the journal editor and the peer reviewer—place in the researcher.
Trust from a journal editor’s perspective
On their end, journal editors rely on authors to follow best practices related to publishing and ethics throughout the submission and publishing process. At the same time, they trust peer reviewers to provide high quality feedback for the papers they review.
However, journal editors too face their fair share of challenges. The huge inflow of manuscript submissions can put editors under a lot of pressure. A report published by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers stated that over 3 million articles were published in 2018. For editors, ensuring that the manuscripts they choose for peer review are of high quality can be a real challenge. Busy reviewers are likely to lose faith in editors if they receive manuscripts that are of low quality. Moreover, it is a difficult task for journal editors to appoint reviewers to evaluate the large volume of manuscripts since many of the requests for review often get declined. This results in delays in processing manuscripts and can compromise the trust researchers place in the journal’s editorial processes.
Trust from a peer reviewer’s perspective
Similarly, reviewers expect authors to have presented their work ethically in their papers and editors to have selected papers with high impact. After all, reviewers take out time from their schedule to evaluate new research findings.
Peer reviewers are often overworked and may turn down review requests which may add further pressure on editors. In some cases though, reviewers accept the job which they delegate to their juniors who may have little to no experience, supervision, or training to review manuscripts. This may ultimately impact the quality of published literature and the trust that the author and the journal editor may place in peer review.
Another aspect that deserves thought is the perspective of the people at the heart of peer review about the system – the peer reviewers. If majority of researchers believe in peer review and its role in boosting the standard of published literature, there is a need to acknowledge the efforts reviewers take to assess manuscripts. Most reviewers feel unappreciated because when peer reviewed manuscripts get rejected and are submitted to another journal, new experts are appointed to scrutinize the manuscript. This renders the contribution of the previous reviewers null and leads to replication of efforts by the next set of reviewers.
Making peer review robust
Indeed, peer review is not without its flaws. Haven’t we come across this the statement “peer review is broken” more than once? And yet, in the Sense about Science’s Peer Review Survey 2019, 90% of the 3000 respondents across career stages and disciplines stated that peer review improved the quality of research papers. It’s therefore important to acknowledge the flaws in the system and encourage a dialog between the stakeholders about the roadblocks.
At present, a large part of peer review happens under the hood. The criteria for who qualifies as a peer reviewer are unclear. Moreover, under most peer review models reviewer comments cannot be shared publicly. This leaves the authors as well as readers in the dark about the quality of peer review. Hearteningly, attempts are being made to lend more transparency to this process but more conversations around the qualifications and training of researchers to become peer reviewers are needed.
Moreover, journals should look to expand their pool of reviewers. Openness in co-reviewing, which involves researchers with little to no previous experience reviewing papers, should be encouraged so that early career researchers get an opportunity as well as guidance to review papers. It will also reduce the burden on few researchers to handle a huge volume of papers.
Researchers, who are central to research, can play a huge role by following ethical publishing practices and ensuring that they submit a peer review ready manuscript – this means the author ensures that their written piece is error-free, complies with all relevant ethical guidelines, and does not violate any publishing norms. The journal editor can then focus more on the quality of science feeling confident that the other aspects such as ethical declarations and language issues have been taken care of.
Peer review is a system that is held together by researchers, peer reviewers, and journal editors. Most importantly, trust is what keeps the system running. While attempts are being made to make peer review more reliable and transparent with the adoption of models such as open peer review, giving credit to peer reviewers, and allowing cascading peer review, a more open and transparent dialog around the issues and possible workarounds will allow peer review to become more efficient.
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