Peer Review in Scholarly Publications – Opportunities and Challenges
Updated on August 5, 2021 6:00 PM By: Sithara Chandran
Peer review is as an essential component of the publication process since it provides a seal of approval on which academics can establish their reputations. The process has become the cornerstone of the scholarly publishing system as it reveals an author’s work for evaluation by other specialists in the field. In addition to motivating authors to create high-quality research, peer review also helps preserve and promote scientific integrity and authenticity. A scientific theory or a claim is usually not recognised by the academic community unless it has been published in a peer-reviewed publication. It is also a known fact that only peer-reviewed journals are considered eligible for Impact Factors by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI).
Peer review, to begin with, serves as a filter, ensuring that only high-quality research gets published, particularly in renowned journals.
Peer review is intended to accomplish different functions, including: assess a manuscript's contributions; execute quality control; focus on improving manuscripts; evaluate the suitability of manuscripts for a journal; provide a decision-making tool for editors; provide peer feedback; curating academic communities; and provide a seal of accreditation for published articles (Anna Severin and Joanna Chataway).
The conventional peer review approach has been recognized to put increasing stress on the academic community. Each manuscript receives an average of 2.7 reviews, and each review takes an average of five hours to write. An average 13.7 million reviews are conducted each year (Publons, 2018). It is presumed that the academic community is already overstretched by this workload. There are chances that reviewers may reject to review more frequently if they are overburdened with reviewing work. Therefore, Editors may struggle to find qualified reviewers who agree to review, causing the review process to be delayed.
The peer review process has stayed relatively unchanged at a period when production services have been radically simplified and automated. Those engaged in scholarly communication are rightfully questioning why and how peer review may be improved to relieve strain on overworked researchers and reduce the lag time articles spend in the limbo of peer review.
The Peer Review Process and its impact
As a preliminary check, a scholarly paper goes through a desk review when it is first submitted to a scientific publication. The editor determines whether the paper should be sent for peer review or to reject it. The next step is to find knowledgeable and unbiased specialists in the same domain. Multiple specialists should assess the work in the best-case scenario.
Peer review is usually carried out in one of the three ways - single-blind review, double-blind review, or open review. In single-blind review, the reviewer's identity is kept confidential while revealing the identity of the author of the paper. On the other hand, both the reviewer and the author remain anonymous during a double-blind review. In an open review, both the paper's author and the peer reviewer are aware of each other's identities.
Additionally, publishers must consider automating the editorial process. For example, many submission tracking systems provide reviewer selection features that recommend possible reviewers based on inbuilt algorithms and review history, although this is only incomplete data. It is critical to have a reviewer recommendation mechanism that evaluates all articles from all fields. While there are several open-source and premium tools available, there is a lot of scope for improvement.
Benefits of Peer Review
Peer review has been an integral part of scientific communication for more than three centuries now. A paper needs to go through the peer-review procedure before submitting for publication. There are chances that an author can miss out on something important while writing the research report.
Peer-reviewed publications have a long history of having a good reputation and being trusted by professionals in the discipline. This also aids them in attracting top scientists and experts to submit research articles. The peer-review process prevents a lot of bad science from making it to publication. Furthermore, the reviewers are specialists in their fields and are up to date on the most recent advancements. As a result, they have the power to veto duplicate research and plagiarized articles.
Additionally, peer-reviewing enables for a wide range of viewpoints to be presented, thereby eliminating personal biases and pre-conceived notions. The reviewers are specialists in their disciplines, and peer-reviewing frequently brings novel research to their notice. This would otherwise be lost in the shuffle of submissions.
The peer-review process is applied for more than just journals. It is also used for grant applications, ensuring that funds are exclusively redirected to feasible research projects. Additionally, the peer review process is also applied for university textbooks, assuring that students are taught appropriately and have access to high-quality material.
The peer-review process has time and again come under fire following situations where reviewers have failed to identify severe flaws in the author's approach. Peer reviewers' excessive workloads, as well as editorial boards' poor selection of reviewers are considered key among reasons for failures in the peer-review process.
Editors serve as the link between the author and the reviewer. Therefore, a great deal of the decision-making power rests with them. While this helps in the smooth running of the process in most situations, there are likelihoods of misuse of this authority. Editors are often accused of rejecting papers at random even before they reach the peer review stage.
Another common criticism is that peer review itself is not transparent enough, not just because evaluations are inherently subjective, but also because reviewers may underestimate the value of a new concept or withhold (or simply not be requested to disclose) important conflict-of-interest information.
The double-blind peer review approach is seldom applied owing to its impracticality, and it is frequently claimed that articles are assessed on the author's reputation rather than merit.
Another key criticism of peer review is that the entire process is very time-consuming. Papers can be delayed for months while approval is secured, and progress may be impeded if a researcher has a series of experiments planned. There is often a need to extend deadlines or manage non-responses to communications, both of which can cause delays, especially when there is a reliance on volunteer editors and reviewers.
Advancements in Peer Review
Peer review in research journals is undergoing a period of rapid change. Innovations in peer-review might vary from cutting-edge technological advancements to editorial improvements that assist in simplifying existing procedures. While some journals are trialling with ‘open' review procedures that disclose identities or even review reports, there are others that are experimenting with pre-registered reports that focus review attention on experimental protocols rather than results. There are also journals that are experimenting with post-publication review via readership commentary.
Whether publishers are transparent in their review processes or not, many are now providing credit for peer review activities through new services like ORCID’s peer review contributions section and Publons. Similarly, innovative new platforms such as F1000 Research and Wellcome Open Research still place peer review at the centre of quality control. However, they do so in a transparent way that gives the public early access to research even before peer review begins, as well as access to review reports when they are received.
Additionally, portable peer review is being hailed as the future of publication efficacy. The majority of papers are rejected by journal editors before they are ever sent out for peer review. To address this problem, a group of journals banded together to form what is known as portable peer review. Portable peer review is a mechanism that allows an author to resubmit an article manuscript to a different publication while keeping the peer evaluation from the previous journal. Instead of starting the whole edit and review process from scratch, the second journal recognizes the review from the first incident and continues the process there.
Portable peer review appears to be gaining traction following Covid related challenges. Nearly 2,000 reviewers from over 80 countries have signed up as quick reviewers for the recently initiated C19 Rapid Review program. The initiative, started by Hindawi, is now endorsed by RoRI, SSRN, and AfricArxiv in addition to OASPA, making it one of the largest cross-publisher collaborations in the scholarly publishing industry.
Role of the JEO in Streamlining the Peer Review Process
Scientific publications that publish peer-reviewed articles significantly rely on scientific referees or reviewers, who generally volunteer to provide their time and expertise. Majority of research funding decisions are dependent on peer-reviewed publications. The quality of the peer-review process and the editorial board are recognized as key impacts on a journal's reputation, Journal Impact Factor (JIF), and its position in the field.
While new technology and innovations can speed up the peer review process, people, particularly the Journal Editorial Office (JEO) assistant, are regarded as the most important component of peer review optimization. The JEO assistant adds an important human aspect to peer review, irrespective of whether it is done in-house by the publisher or outsourced to a third party.
The JEO assistant can support the editor in managing the peer review process by handling administrative responsibilities such as author helpdesk, manuscript technical checks, and communication letters. Publishing Assistants who are SMEs can assist in finding reviewers, reviewing manuscripts, managing the appeals process, etc., thereby helping to reduce peer review timelines, ensure research integrity, and achieve higher satisfaction.
The JEO is likely to be an author's initial point of contact with a journal – very often concerning a presubmission query. The author maintains this contact throughout the lifespan of the article. Communication between the JEO and authors may extend even beyond the time of publication for publishers with in-house teams that collaborate during peer review and production.
Peer review is ripe for innovation both in terms of process and technology. It is important to strike an optimal balance between review time, rigor and quality, and stakeholder satisfaction in this transformation.