Why do we need regional diversity in peer review?
Conversations around diversity and inclusion in academia, specifically within peer review, have gathered momentum in the past few years. This is a heartening trend given the increase in volumes of published research from non-traditional demographic segments, especially emerging regions. However, achieving regional diversity and inclusion in peer review should ideally not be a goal for its own sake; else, initiatives aimed at doing so may result in mere tokenism or fail completely.
Peer review has been the center of much debate, and drawbacks associated with the process have been universally acknowledged. Therefore, to achieve a diverse and inclusive reviewer pool in a meaningful way, it is essential to understand why regional diversity in peer review is important and which problems related to peer review can be effectively addressed by achieving this.
So, why is it necessary to expand peer review pools?
1. Publication delay, mostly caused by long review processes, is a top concern among researchers
Editorial process related to peer review—identifying the right reviewers, ensuring that the desired number of reviewers accept review invitations, ensuring timely submission of review reports, etc.—are effort-intensive tasks and can delay publication by a few weeks to a few months. In a global survey, publication delay emerged as the top problem that researchers wanted to see addressed.1 Expanding peer review pools would be a critical step in alleviating the burden journals have been experiencing with increasing research volumes.
2. Established research-producing countries bear a disproportionate review burden
The Publons 2018 report highlighted the lopsided regional distribution of reviewers: established countries like the USA provide far more reviews than they generate the need for, and emerging research powerhouses like China contribute significantly fewer peer reviews than they require.2 The report also showed that this could be partly explained by the tendency of journal editors to seek peer reviewers from the same regions as they are based in, and most editors are based in established regions.
With ever-increasing research specializations, it may already be difficult to find reviewers with expertise relevant to the topic of a research manuscript. So, the further narrowing of the reviewer pool by geographies may leave editors with a very small pool of potential researchers to rely on for some disciplines. This is not sustainable as it can cause (and may already be causing) extensive reviewer burnout. Regional diversification of reviewer pools can ensure a more equitable distribution of review workload.
3. Researchers from emerging regions are not being effectively utilized as peer reviewers
Achieving an equitable review workload may not be as difficult as it seems. Researchers from Asian countries have been reported to be more interested in training programs on topics such as an introduction to becoming a peer reviewer and working with editors,3 indicating eagerness to take on peer review responsibilities. Moreover, researchers from emerging regions have been found to be more willing to accept review invitations and more likely to complete reviews faster than those from established regions.2 So, there is already a potentially vast pool of researchers whose expertise can be tapped more effectively.
4. Expanding reviewer pools may reduce potential regional biases or conflicts of interest
Researchers have been reported to perceive a fairly high prevalence of regional bias at the peer review stage.4 Such perceptions are likely to be more pronounced among researchers from emerging regions, especially those from non–English-speaking backgrounds. While it is difficult to prove the existence of reviewer biases based on author identities, ensuring a regionally diverse reviewer pool may gradually help reduce both the biases themselves and perceptions of these biases.
Moreover, geographically limited reviewer pools also mean higher chances of conflicts of interest, with researchers from competitor laboratories in the same region reviewing each other’s work. Competitor-associated delays were, in fact, also perceived as a fairly common ethical problem among peer reviewers.4 A globally spread-out reviewer pool may reduce the chance of this ethical challenge as well.
5. A regionally diverse peer review pool may help boost a journal’s image
In recent years, many international publishers and journals have been trying to attract and engage with author bases in emerging research-producing countries. Growing their peer reviewer pools/networks in these regions may just offer that extra boost to these efforts. Moreover, a regionally diverse reviewer pool can help publishers/journals effectively address the challenges mentioned above (publication delay, reviewer burnout, low involvement of reviewers from emerging regions, regional biases, etc.). Investing in developing a diverse pool can therefore pay rich dividends and eventually bolster a journal’s trust-worthiness and overall image.
That the current peer reviewer distribution is not sustainable has been clearly highlighted by the pressure COVID-19 put on peer review systems. Journals had to find ways to manage large volumes of COVID-19–related research while maintaining the quality of peer reviews. Rapid reviews were one of the measures used to address this challenge, and the high number of sign-ups for these reviews from traditionally underrepresented regions have been specially acknowledged by The Royal Society.5
There is a strong case for initiatives such as offering professional reviewer training and establishing systems that assign reviewers formal credit. These can help build a strong, high-quality global reviewer pool. Achieving diversity in peer review goes beyond fairness. It is not just about giving visibility to researchers from different geographies as peer reviewers or including them more often in the process. It can have far-reaching benefits for both researchers from underrepresented regions and academia as a whole.
1. Editage. What changes would researchers like to see in academic publishing? Views of researchers who participated in the Editage Global Author Survey, campaign.editage.com/editage-survey-researcher-comments/, (2019).
2. Publons. 2018 Global State of Peer Review. publons.com/static/Publons-Global-State-Of-Peer-Review-2018.pdf (2018).
3. Warne, V. . onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/leap.1002, Learned Publishing 29, 41–50 (2016).
4. Taylor & Francis. , authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/publishing-your-research/peer-review/peer-review-global-view/ (2015).
5. Phil Hurst. Peer review during the pandemic. The Royal Society Blog, (2021).
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