Are you planning to submit a publication to a journal? But, you don’t know exactly what to expect in the review process and you are wondering how the processes differ from each other? In this blog, we will give you an overview of the purpose of peer reviews, the challenges they pose and the role they play in the quality of your scientific work.
Famous peer review hoaxes
A famous case of three graduate students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) caught the world of scientific authors, journals and peer reviewers unaware. During a summer break, they developed an algorithm for a random paper generator, called SCIgen, which produced academic manuscripts for journal publication.
The acceptance for publication of their nonsensical paper and subsequent conference invitations started a game of cat and mouse. CSAIL acolytes started weeding out predatory publishers riding on the coattails of the legitimate journal publishing process with its peer review guardrails. At some stage, in an interesting twist, a French study led to a prominent publishing house withdrawing 120 different papers from their portfolio of journals. All based on the suspicion of the authors having used SCIgen to get published!
As with the Sokal affair of 1994, another one of several infamous academic hoaxes, these antics drew attention to a perceived decline of standards of rigour in the academic community. The fact that the later ‘Grievance Studies Hoax’ authors had seven of their 20 hoax papers accepted for publication after peer review suggested that the best defence – the peer review process – was not watertight.
The purpose of the peer review process
The purpose of peer reviewers is to serve as an impartial judge to attest to the validity and quality of an article before publication. The process is also a form of quality control; a means of ensuring that the article is original and matches the prestige of the journal to which it has been submitted.
As such, peer review is a filter. It also provides a service to the author, offering impartial decisions, a useful review report and guidance on how best to shape and improve an article.
Above all, peer review should be a process that is one of integrity – on the part of the journal editor, the reviewers, and the author.
Peer review models are undergoing change
Why has the peer review process that served the academic community and scholarly journals so well for generations have undergone a number of changes in the past 10 years?
The answer is twofold. Firstly, the peer review system is slow, and there may be legitimate reasons for authors to transmit their research results to their audience at top speed. Secondly, there is enough reward and incentive, unfortunately, for expedient researchers to try and buck the system.
Challenges with the peer review process
Any number of the lofty goals for which peer review is designed can be corrupted, especially if politics and personality are allowed to play a role. Judging whether a piece of research is significant and true can succumb to instances of reviewer bias and jealousy. Feedback that is designed to help improve the original publication manuscript can turn nasty. And the tediousness of the journal submission process can become enormously frustrating.
The genuine need for speed: The COVID-19 pandemic, more than anything else, crystallised how in some areas, there is an imperative to share research results as widely and as quickly as possible without the more pedantic pace of a thorough peer review process.
The impatience of ambition: At the best of times, the peer review process may frustrate ambitious authors ready to build their academic careers. For the impatient researcher, it is a huge temptation to move straight to the dynamic digital world where quality controls and timing may be very different.
The quality of research: It is no secret that the academic who should be most averse to proper peer review would be the one whose research and writing may not hold up to the process. Predatory journals that charge authors a fee in return for quick publication exploit this weakness. However, it is also seen for what it is by academic peers and superiors who make decisions on career promotion.
What takes so long?
A manuscript could linger on an academic Journal Editor’s desk for a while before being assigned to a volunteer reviewer. The latter may also take a while before tending to the review and providing peer review comments.
The feedback also cycles through the editorial board, and an editorial decision will likely only be provided once all reviewers have submitted their comments.
Most journal editors insist on embargoes for submitted manuscripts. They want the exclusive chance to review, accept or reject the manuscript before the author can submit elsewhere.
The evolution of the peer review process
Because of the speed of our modern world, the digitisation of media, the constant pressure to solve problems, and the rush to earn a reputation to advance career goals, the scholarly peer review model has begun to evolve into a number of different formats.
Given the volume of research being produced today, there are not enough reviewers to process the work. In addition, peer reviewers are not necessarily equally well qualified, nor may the review criteria be the same across journals. To democratise and equalise the process, changes are being made regarding anonymity and accountability of reviewers, with some models removing blinders from author or reviewer, or both. Still, with each strategy, sacrifices and tradeoffs between efficiency, quality, and integrity must be weighed.
- Single blind review:
This is the traditional model in science fields where the author does not know the identity of the reviewers. In contrast, the reviewer is aware of the author’s identity. The single blind peer review model supposedly enables the reviewer to be brutally honest without fear of repercussion.
However, this is a double-edged sword in that reviewers may prejudice the author favourably if already a well-respected academic, on the one hand, or discriminate against a less well-known author or one from a marginalised group, on the other hand.
- Double blind review:
Here, the author does not know who the reviewers are, and vice versa. Double blind peer review is the classic model in social sciences and humanities, and is typically embraced for its anonymity, which is assumed to ensure fairness and avoid personal criticism.
In practice, however, anonymity is never guaranteed, and it is usually easy to detect who the author is, at least, when it comes to someone already established in the field.
- Open peer review:
As the internet has expanded and open access publishing has taken off, there has been a move to fully disclose peer reviewer identities to further democratise the process. In this model, all are known to each other.
The benefits include increased accountability on the part of the reviewer who may, therefore, be more obligated to pay careful attention to submissions, respond in a timely manner, and divulge conflicts of interest. Some journals publish the open review and reviewer recommendations alongside the article.
Drawbacks, however, are that potential reviewers may choose not to volunteer because they prefer their critiques to remain anonymous, especially when reviewing someone senior’s work.
- Transparent peer review:
This form is still in its infancy. It provides all documentation and review around an article to be published together: the editorial decision, peer review feedback, author’s responses. While this method is somewhat cumbersome, for those deeply invested in the ideas being published, the background conversations that lead to the article’s original selection and various iterations can be extremely informative.
- Collaborative review:
This is a relatively new format when an author and reviewer work together to improve the peer reviewed article. Based on a mentor-student type relationship, this kind of review requires a high level of commitment and time, but it can be extremely beneficial to emerging scholars. As an interactive and collaborative process, the final published research is often significantly improved, but the lines can also sometimes blur between writer and advisor and create problems.
- Post publication peer review:
The post publication review is a relatively new approach adopted by some open access publications. The goal is to overcome the drawbacks of traditional forms of peer review by opening an article to evaluation and critique even after it has been published. In this case, the identities of the author and reviewer are known and so are the peer review comments on the manuscript.
Positive aspects are that reviewers get to take credit for their reviews, which is often a thankless job and does not count towards regular publication tallies. At the same time, the article becomes a living document with constant feedback and conversation.
This works especially well in science, where the process becomes “the real meat grinder”, a kind of Social Darwinism where only those articles which stand the test of hundreds of reviewers testing findings and refining arguments survive.
Regardless, the peer review process as a whole seems to be academia’s best response. The review process seeks to test the validity, authenticity, relevance, impact and veracity of original research for every author whose work comes to public attention.
These processes can vary significantly from publication to publication. So if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us, we’d be happy to help in any way we can. You can click here to get in touch with us.
© Pexels 2021 / photo: fauxels