Journal peer review is increasingly challenged – there are no easy solutions, but here’s a few thoughts

Journal editors struggle to find reviewers; authors face unreasonable delays with their papers being reviewed. Reviewers receive a lot of requests. Peer review is particularly challenged in the present moment. But it has been creaking for a long time. Without thinking I have a solution that will fix it, a few minor ideas, based on my experience as author, reviewer, board member, and editor, both with established publishers and with a start-up independent journal. The key point here is that there is not a simple solution; and that the responses need to be from all parts of the process.

Authors – only submit papers which are ready, try to get comments from supervisors/mentors/colleagues first. Too many submitted papers are a draft or two away from being ready for review. Do some basic research on the journal you’re submitting to – too many papers are sent to an inappropriate journal. Remember, each paper you submit carries an implicit requirement to review in your turn.

Colleagues – be willing to read papers for people, especially early career, to help them shape a piece, decide an appropriate journal, etc. Certainly be willing to sit down with the author, a paper and its reviews and help guide the resubmission process. This can be done informally, or through research group/cluster or department-level inititives – manuscript development support, workshops, etc.

Editors – make decisions yourself or as part of an editorial team. Not all papers need to go for review. Don’t use reviewers unless you think this paper has a good chance of appearing in the journal. Don’t waste the reviewer resource. Try to pick reviewers with a bit more thought than ‘this is a paper on X; Y has worked on X; let’s ask Y’. Try to find earlier career researchers rather than just the usual suspects. Use your board for the really tricky papers, not as a default option. When a revised paper comes back, do you need reviewers again, and do you need reviewers again now? If the author clearly hasn’t addressed the reports sufficiently, or provided a list of changes made, send it back to them first, rather than straight to reviewers.

Be willing to work with reviewers, especially early career reviewers, to say – this was a great review; or please don’t copyedit a paper; or you have clearly spent far too much time on this; or this is inappropriate reviewer behaviour; etc. If a reviewer says ‘no’ then move on, don’t argue with them. You have no idea what else they are doing, life situation, etc. If they offer alternative suggestions be grateful, but don’t expect this as a default – thinking of suitable names takes time, which if they had they might well have done the review. Asking your board members for advice on suitable reviewers on a paper might be a more appropriate use of their role than always asking them to review.

Reviewers – either accept or decline within a few days; don’t sit on requests. Do your fair share, but don’t feel you have to do everything asked (a rough guide is here). A clear no is better than a yes that never appears. Suggest alternatives if you can. If you accept to do a review, block out some time in your diary in the next month or so to do the review. You should know roughly how long the average paper takes you to review. If you can’t find that time in your diary, then you can’t take on the review. If you’re struggling to meet the deadline, talk to the editor/journal manager. Most editors will be grateful for a review that you say will be delivered by a specific date, even if that is a bit longer than normal. And much rather that than a yes that turns into a no.

Publishers – make it clear that you will invest resource in thorough copyediting and if necessary language assistance, and then make it clear to reviewers they should review on the basis of the ideas and argument, not the language used or (to an extent) presentation. Allow authors to submit in any recognised/consistent reference style, and make it clear that they should follow your journal’s style only after conditional acceptance. Make your review websites easy to navigate and use. Provide adequate support to your editors to allow them to do their job, and especially the part of their job only academic editors can do.

I’m sure I’ve missed things, and equally sure not all of these would suit every journal all the time. But it’s a collective problem that needs each part of the process to do something. Maybe our institutions should do something too to recognise this work. And of course, not all requests to review come from journals, but that’s a wider point. I should say I remain unconvinced by the ‘pay reviewers’ argument, unless we also want to pay to submit, and/or for reviews to be done even more transactionally than they are now. It would also be a real problem for journals published by small presses, or independent ones, even if we think the big publishers are making unreasonable profits.

Update: to clarify, by ‘early/earlier career researchers’ I mean people with PhDs, i.e. post-docs, beginning lecturers/assistant professors. I don’t mean PhD researchers.

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3 Responses to Journal peer review is increasingly challenged – there are no easy solutions, but here’s a few thoughts

  1. Pingback: Tipps zum Peer Review – Archivalia

  2. simon batterbury says:

    I think you said in your older article, do x3 as many reviews in a year as you submit, as a rough guide. I find to keep my subfield and journal afloat, I have to do about x10. The best number might be somewhere in the middle.
    The only thing I would add is, there is an ethics to publishing, as the ‘Cost of Knowledge’ campaign revealed c10 years ago. If you don’t like or trust the practices of a particular publisher [and there are 5 main profit-focussed one ones], don’t review for them, and spend the time saved supporting other outlets.The only thing I would add is, there is an ethics to publishing, as the ‘Cost of Knowledge’ campaign revealed c10 years ago. If you don’t like or trust the practices of a particular publisher [and there are 5 main profit-focussed one ones], don’t review for them, and spend the time saved supporting other outlets.

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks Simon, all good points. I certainly do a lot more than 3x what I submit, and suspect many people do too. For me I tend to prioritise reviewing books and grants, in part because of the types of things I tend to submit, though I certainly do a fair share of journal work. I can see the logic of not reviewing for certain presses, especially if we don’t submit to their journals, though that is probably easier in certain fields than others, and possibly at certain stages of career. There are some key journals with Elsevier, for example, which people in certain sub-fields would aim to publish in.

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