Taking a closer look at peer review

01 November 2017 - By: Caroline Wood

Taking a closer look at peer review

By Caroline Wood

The pace of research has never moved so fast, producing an estimated 1.5 million scholarly publications each year1. This brings considerable challenges for the academic publishing industry, from recruiting enough reviewers to finding the right journal for each manuscript. At our session ‘Meet the Academic publishers’ at the 2017 SEB Annual Meeting in Gothenburg, our panel of speakers, chaired by John Bothwell (SEB+ Section), offered their views on the challenges facing the industry and the key emerging trends for the future.

As more manuscripts are written, the burden on reviewers grows ever heavier; this can lead to established researchers delegating their reviews to PhD students and early career researchers – but is this always ethical? As Ulrike Müller (Associate Editor at Proceedings B) said, “I assume that the person to whom I assign the review is the person who wrote it, but so often I hear through the grapevine that it was handed on to someone else”. According to Lee Sweetlove (Editor-in Chief, The Plant Journal), this is a valuable route for training but it depends on the involvement of the academic: “The academic should be helping the student to construct their comments and read the review before submission, not simply submitting it with their own name against it”. There was a general consensus that as long as the process is transparent, both parties can benefit from co-reviews. As one audience member noted: “PhD students often know more about their specific topic than anyone else, as they are the ones doing new work on it.”

For the early career researchers keen to start reviewing, a key question was how to know whether or not they are doing a good job. Christine Foyer (Associate Editor at The Biochemical Journal and Plant, Cell and Environment and Handling Editor at the Journal of Experimental Botany) described how most journals compile their own feedback to assist in future reviewing decisions, but this tends to remain in house. Lee agreed: “Giving feedback to each reviewer would be too much work for the editor, but I am sure that they would be willing to share the scores with young reviewers who are looking for feedback”. According to Adam Wheeler (Senior Publisher, Wiley), a more effective approach might be to enlist the support of a colleague to check objectivity: “Even senior reviewers should do this – everyone has biases they don’t know about”.

“Could preprints be the future?” was another question posed during this short lunchtime discussion. This is where manuscripts are uploaded straight to a public domain and reviewed in the comments section. Despite being common in mathematics, physics and computer science, this is rarely done in the biological sciences. According to Christine, this wouldn’t be an effective screening process: “The biosciences generate an awful lot of papers; if they all got into the system we could be in danger of missing the interesting ones”. Adam also noted that such a system might allow the most competitive voices to dominate: “There are many brilliant researchers with good insights who are uncomfortable sharing their views in a wider space, whereas there are others who may not be so strong academically but would be provided with a platform that could disproportionately represent their voice”.

Despite its imperfections, it appears that the standard model of peer review will endure for the time being, as Adam concluded:“Whilst publishing bodies do spend a lot of time looking for potential solutions, peer review represents the most reliable method we have at present.”

  1. Jinha, Arif E. “Article 50 million: an estimate of the number of scholarly articles in existence.” Learned Publishing 23.3 (2010): 258–263.
Category: Cell Biology
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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.