Whither peer review?

If you’ve been working in science long enough to have published at least one or two papers, you are already well-acquainted with certain aspects of the process:

  • Our current system of anonymous peer review has been a resounding success in terms of furthering the scientific endeavor.
  • Anonymous peer review has been around for a long time now and has carved itself a firm niche within academic culture.
  • A good reviewer is worth their weight in gold (or ink?). Their suggestions, even when graciously rejecting your article, can be used to strengthen the work for eventual publication.
  • Thankfully, most reviewers are good reviewers. Most take the time to carefully and thoughtfully train their lens of critical expertise on the submissions that they receive. In most cases, the eventual published products benefit from the (usually mainly unrewarded) referee’s effort.
  • A poor reviewer, on the other hand, is one of the most aggravating people that you will ever encounter. Poor reviewers take many forms. There are the ones that seem to have not read your paper in the first place and ask questions about things that are explicitly mentioned in your submission. There are those who seem to have an agenda, either scientific or otherwise, and who wear that agenda on their lab coat sleeve. And there are those who obviously don’t have the time or inclination to give a proper review and so either cursorily reject (usually) or accept your paper but who offer no helpful advice in their five-sentence paragraph to the editor. There is no real recourse for response; no real opportunity for dialogue. The review is the review is the review. Good, bad, ugly, or very ugly.
  • The system can be slow, not necessarily because of careful consideration by reviewers, but simply because a manuscript can sit for weeks or months on someone’s desk before they get reminded the seventeenth and final time by the journal editor to complete the review.
  • No one has ever received tenure or promotion on the basis of their careful and fair reviews of others’ articles. Conducting reviews is vital to the ongoing work of science,  but is a generally thankless job.

There are any number of peer review horror stories out there. Some of them are real. Some of them stem from the fact that nobody likes to get their work rejected. So it’s tempting to ascribe villainous motives to the anonymous reviewer(s) who stopped your article in its tracks. It is often hard to differentiate a legitimate beef from sour grapes.

Sir Winston Churchill is reputed to have said, “(i)t has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” And the same might be said for anonymous peer review. The fact of the matter is that peer review has served science well and continues to do so to this day. But that doesn’t mean that the current system is the pinnacle accomplishment of the scientific publishing process. Life evolves. Culture evolves. Technology evolves.

To stretch the evolutionary analogy, are we witnessing something akin to directional selective pressure on the anonymous peer review process? If so, where is the process being pushed? Are there better forms of reviewing that we have not yet tried because, until recently, our technology would not permit them? As technology changes, will peer review also change and become better – both for the scientists involved and for the furthering of our scientific knowledge in general?

Along with the recent discussion about more open science  and more “crowd” involvement in the process, we are also hearing some interesting ideas about changes to the review process. One such idea was recently presented by James Rosindell and Will Pearse at the PLoS Biologue blog:

Peer review is an essential part of science, but there are problems with the current system. Despite considerable effort on the part of reviewers and editors it remains difficult to obtain high quality, thoughtful and unbiased reviews, and reviewers are not sufficiently rewarded for their efforts. The process also takes a lot of time for editors, reviewers and authors.

And their solution:

We propose a new system for peer review. Submitted manuscripts are made immediately available online. Commissioned and/or voluntary reviews would appear online shortly afterwards. The agreement or disagreement of other interested scientists and reviewers are automatically tallied, so editors have a survey of general opinion, as well as full reviews, to inform their decisions.

In our proposed system, users would log into the system and get the opportunity to vote once for each article (or reviewers comment), thereby moving it up or down the rankings. Access could be restricted to those within the academic world or even within an appropriate discipline, so only appropriately qualified individuals could influence the rankings. The publication models of established journals would be preserved, as full publication of an article can still take place once the journal is satisfied with the scientific community’s reception of the work.

There are certainly attractive elements to this idea. First, of course, is the idea of online publication of what amounts to being a preprint. This gives the authors official priority and it gets the results out to the community as soon as possible. It also allows some semblance of “democratization” as the review process would no longer be a one-way street. And, of course, it forces reviewers to be responsible for their comments and decisions; the lack of such accountability being one of the biggest issues with the system of anonymous peer review.Referees would also receive explicit credit for their good, and not-so-good, reviews. A great reviewing track record may be the sort of thing that could actually be rewarded within the academy. There would be a real incentive to conduct good reviews.

However, I have concerns as well. Just as with “liking” on Facebook, this has the potential to become a popularity contest. And science is not about popularity. It is about truth. And truth can come from unpopular sources. There is also the likelihood that some researchers in highly competitive fields will only sign on to such a system with extreme reluctance due to the fear of being scooped.

Beyond that, would already overworked researchers really take quality time to thoughtfully comment on preprints? And, would there be ways to game the system, analogous to people trying to increase their search engine rankings? Finally, what about small and boutique journals? The authors of the new peer review proposal envision a marketplace where editors bid for articles within the ranking system. As the editor of a small, regional journal, I am worried about what would happen to journals like the one that I oversee. Would we be able to win bids for quality papers? Or would we get lost in the shuffle after over 100 years of service to the scientific community?

As with the shifts that are occurring with the move toward open access and away from impact factors, I am positive that peer review will also have to change. And it’s good to see that people are thinking about how those changes will come about. Hopefully some of the various concerns with the intended and unintended consequences of changing the system will also be thoughtfully considered. There’s nothing wrong with moving quickly as long as you apply the brakes appropriately around the corners.

A quick post script: It should be noted that the peer review process is not a monolithic edifice of utter similarity across the board. Some journals (e.g., BMJ) have been practicing open peer review for quite some time now. And some new journals (e.g. PeerJ) are also pushing into new territory on this front.

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