Peer review: Why does it matter?
This is Peer Review Week – a global event recognizing the importance of peer review in knowledge discovery and debating the future of this formal process for validating the accuracy and reliability of scholarly publications.
Peer review as a practice has been around for decades, but the demand for assuring quality and preventing fraudulent research is greater than ever. The volume of research continues to climb, along with increasing cases of research misconduct and disinformation spreading like wildfire – trends which vary by discipline, but are often fueled by the pressure to “publish or perish” in the most prestigious journals to secure tenure or promotion in academic positions.
The peer review workflow is often facilitated by journal publishers, acting as referees between authors and editors during expert review and validation of submitted manuscripts. Most peer review is double or single anonymized, meaning author and/or reviewer identities are protected to safeguard honesty and integrity in the process. Naming reviewers changes the dynamics of honest and constructive critiques, yet some advocate for more open, transparent methods of peer review.
How is research reviewed?
Peer review is rooted in a social contract that assumes a degree of reciprocity and communal good will among scholars. Authors and editors need the help of peer reviewers, who will presumably one day serve as an author or editor themselves in the dissemination of new research in their field. But there has historically been heavy demand for highly skilled reviewers, who are often expected to be a primary means by which bad data or faulty methodologies are identified (ideally before they go to press).
However, these reviewers are essentially contributing volunteer labor to the process, spending hours reading and critiquing papers without compensation – either via attribution or monetary means. However, doling out payments for peer review can undermine trust and generate biases, further complicating a delicate process. Editors often build up trusted communities of reviewers, as evidence demonstrates the powerful dynamic of familiarity in the execution of effective peer review; however, this practice also risks bias and favoritism.
What can researchers do?
Journals are experimenting with various methods to ensure high-quality peer reviews, from automated tools to screen new manuscripts and locate qualified reviewers to using AI to streamline workflows to reduce the time between submission and decision. Many publishers are trialing more open methods of peer review, which aim to increase transparency, accountability, and incentives for both authors and reviewers.
Leading publishers are working to balance speed-to-publication with rigorous peer review – but what role can researchers play in safeguarding the value of the peer review process?
Scholarship over speed: A thorough, constructive, and well-written peer review can take hours and constitutes volunteer labor in the name of scholarship. Interdisciplinary research requires validation from across multiple domains, methods, and skill sets, which compounds the challenge for journals that integrate work from more than one field of study. AI tools are proving effective means to pre-screen submissions and identify expert reviewers, but they cannot produce the sort of constructive feedback and editorial decisions required for publishing research. Peer review may not be fast, but it is key to validate new scholarly discoveries.
Pay it forward: Both authors and readers can support rigorous peer review by acknowledging the time-intensive demands journals put on reviewers and doing their part to support scholarly communities by also serving as reviewers in their areas of expertise. Most publications readily invite new reviewers as well as editorial board members, which are effective means of contributing to the scholarly community surrounding a journal.
Join the club: Setting up research profiles in open repositories such as ORCID helps ensure persistent linkages across your publications, helps publishers disambiguate your work from others in the field, and gives editors insight into your areas of expertise. If you contribute your time as a peer reviewer, consider registering your work with Publons, a service that integrates reviewer attribution into your researcher profiles. And get involved in cross-sector initiatives like Peer Review Week to be part of the future of peer review and scholarly communications!