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Peer Review Management - Interview with Dr Helina Marshall

Posted on : August 19th 2021

Dr Marshall is a Senior Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and was the first early career researcher recruited to the editorial board of Access Microbiology, a new OA journal from the Microbiology Society.

Academics tend to view peer review differently depending on whether they’re speaking as an author, reviewer, or editor. How has been recruited into an editorial role early in your career affected your view of publishing?

I think that being more actively involved in the other side of publishing as an editor really helps to give you an appreciation of the amount of work that goes on during that time after you have submitted your manuscript and what can feel like a lifetime waiting to receive an outcome. It also really opened my eyes to the extreme breadth of subject area that can be covered by a journal or even an individual editor.

What was the thing that surprised you most about peer review in your early days as an editor?

I was truly shocked at how difficult it can often be to find reviewers that are willing/ able to review manuscripts for you. As authors, it can be extremely frustrating the amount of time that it can take from submission to publication, but aside from academic editors in particular having their own day job to do on top of their editorial duties, I would say that a good proportion of time is spent on finding suitable reviewers.

Publishers put a lot of effort into speeding up the review process. To your mind, what does an efficient, high-quality review process look like?

There are a number of different aspects of a manuscript that must be checked prior to publication, whether that be ethics statements, plagiarism or publication in part elsewhere, but this is often time consuming. There are novel technological platforms that are starting to become available which are aimed at speeding up various processes both for a publishing/editorial team and reviewers. Whether that be scanning methods for rigor criteria and determining potential reproducibility (SciScore) or checking for similarities to already published articles or web content (iThenticate). If technological platforms can be used to speed up editorial processes as well as aid in finding suitable reviewers, the amount of time required from submission of a manuscript to a final decision could be massively reduced.

Peer reviewing is a time-consuming activity for researchers, and too often editors return to the same people for multiple articles. What support could publishers give you as an editor to help spread the burden more evenly?

The dream would be to already be provided a list of possible reviewers that could be suitable to review the manuscript that the editor could then use as an initial starting point of deciding the best potential reviewer for that particular manuscript. Due to the wide breadth of subject area that one editor can cover, a good proportion could be potentially outwith the editor’s immediate expertise, and so finding a reviewer that would match the manuscript well enough to be able to truly and fairly critically review that piece of work is often the most time-consuming aspect. Without good reviews, a lot more time is required of the editor to be able to come to a decision.

Does peer review need to include an editor plus two peer reviewers, or should other structures be considered?

I would say that the structures of peer review could be better adjusted to suit the journal and/or subject area. I wouldn’t say that peer-review could be reliably replaced by a completely different model, however I think there are different structures that could support different research areas, whether that be the use of specialised reviewers, and provide additional support to a publishing team and peer reviewers through novel technologies. However, I think the maintenance of at least two peer-reviewers (in 99% of cases) is important to maintain a balance of critical appraisal, though in some cases and depending on the study, 3+ reviewers may be required.

The pressure on researchers to publish, combined with the desire among some journals to attract media attention for articles making big claims, has led to some genuine issues around research integrity over the years. In your own field of microbiology, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a rush of publications, not all of which were scientifically sound. How would you like to see publishers address questions of research integrity during peer review or after publication?

I think that the ability to address research integrity at all still relies on being able to identify those cases where research integrity has been jeopardised. Ultimately, compromised work needs to be identified, preferably before or during the peer review process but if proven to be purposefully aimed at deceiving publishers and reviewers etc. I genuinely believe that these instances should be publicly available – accountability is so important, and I don’t think that these instances should only be made known following a retraction. Some might question that there is a need to put in place a deterrent for those that might try to compromise their own research integrity, if even on the smallest of scales.

Do you have an opinion on openness in peer review?

I believe that openness is important however I feel that in some circumstances it can lead to some negative consequences, whether that be a higher number of reviewer refusals or backlash on any reviewers who may have negatively reviewed a manuscript. Reviewer openness leaves the reviewer open to higher levels of scrutiny and perhaps down the line to a tit-for-tat mentality such that if an author of a manuscript that was previously negatively reviewed is subsequently asked to now be the reviewer, regardless of the quality of the reviewer’s manuscript, they may now receive a poor critique in retaliation. A case could perhaps be made for unblinding reviewers’ post-acceptance of a manuscript but maybe in the instances of a manuscript being rejected, reviewers may wish to remain anonymous then.

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