Peer review—involving sound academic assessment of scholarly articles has long been a cornerstone of journal quality and academic prosperity. To be rigorous, the review system must embody two critical mechanisms. First, the journal must select high quality reviewers. Second, there must be a system to ensure impartial reviews. From a practical view, the latter warrants more attention because of the fact that this mechanism is less controllable. The degree of fairness of a review is mostly in the hands of those reviewing. Nonetheless, when done objectively, peer review provides a comprehensive check and evaluation of the research outcome and design. And so, this practice of impartiality by reviewers is of utmost importance to ensure review quality.
What do Chinese journals lack in their current peer review system?
In China, currently, the peer review process occurs in three steps: an initial review by the editor, a review by a subject expert, and a review by the chief editor (editorial committee). To ensure fairness in peer review, journals adhere to single or double blind review, provide reviewers with evaluation criteria, and disclose the list of reviewers in the publication. To allow journal editors to select reviewers more easily, some organizations have prepared a list of experts within the country as potential reviewers. Additionally, journal editors may receive reviewer references from academic societies and authors or find reviewer information through database companies by keyword searches. Journals typically recruit reviewers from within the country because of their restrictions with language, professional proficiency, and the publishers’ conditions, which make it difficult to recruit reviewers globally. However, this scenario of domestic recruitment does not contribute to a high-quality review outcome: these journals lack participation from the field’s top experts spread across the world.
Another factor that affects peer review in China is the difference between science disciplines and the humanities. Science experts are specialists and more difficult to find than humanities experts, who are generalists, and easier to use across sub-disciplines. Editors of social science journals hence have a stronger ability to screen papers.
On the other hand, how are western journals managing peer review?
Prestigious western journals have a more widespread reviewer recruiting system. For example, Science has an editorial committee, which consists of more than 100 international scientists who are in charge of reviewing the importance and credibility of manuscripts submitted to the journal. After manuscripts pass the editorial check, they are sent to external experts for blind review. These external experts span many countries and comprise of more than 10,000 people, some of whom are Nobel Prize laureates. Science has 60% of reviewers from the US, 30% from Western Europe, and 10% from other areas.
Apart from traditional single and double blind peer review systems, open peer review is an emerging system. In this system, editors post the reviewed paper on the Internet, along with the comments of the peer reviewers. Authors and audience members can see the peer review comments and communicate with reviewers directly in an open and transparent manner. When the paper is accepted and published, the reviewers’ names are listed at the end of the article. In addition to allowing reviewers and authors to know each other and discuss academic issues openly as peers on equal ground, this system also allows anyone with relevant expertise in the field to comment on a paper. The advantage of such a transparent system is that reviewers tend to be more conscious, accountable, and clearer when providing comments. Arguably, this process allows authors to receive better help to improve the quality of their papers.
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[This article has been adapted from a translated version of 国外知名学术期刊改审稿机制：网络公开审稿.]