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News Feature: Peer Review

February 21, 2023, #30

On 13 February 2023 Amber Dance wrote an article in Nature called: “Stop the peer-review treadmill. I want to get off; Faced with a deluge of papers, journal editors are struggling to find willing peer reviewers.”¹ Anyone who has been a journal editor or conference organiser or peer reviewer knows that peer review takes substantial time and energy, not just for the reviewers, but for those reviewing the peer-reviews. The scale may surprise many scholars. Dance quotes Balazs Aczel at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest: “Using a data set covering more than 87,000 scholarly journals, Aczel and his colleagues estimated that researchers globally, in aggregate, spent the equivalent of more than 15,000 years on peer review in 2020 alone.”² The problem with aggregate numbers is that they are so large that they obscure the individual problem of balancing time for peer-review with writing, teaching, and other necessities of academic life.

A standard complaint is that peer review is unrewarded work. A few for-profit journals will pay for reviews, and a few will offer a free online subscription. This may not, however, be an ideal solution: “Non-profit journals might not be able to compete for reviewers if commercial rivals paid. And researchers eager for an easy pay cheque might churn out lower-quality reviews.”¹ Another proposal is to expand the reviewer pool. Dance quotes “Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publications at EMBO Press in Heidelberg, Germany,”¹ as saying: “We’re not using enough early-career researchers…”¹ Taking this suggestion risks criticism that the reviewers lack experience, though it is unclear to what degree an eager post-doc will do a worse job than a full professor pressed for time.

A practical idea is to use computers to check statistical results and various mechanical tasks that humans tend to overlook. Preprints are also a popular suggestion that some journals use as a first step in the reviewing process. As Dance notes, preprints “don’t replace the publications that scientists need to populate their CVs.”¹

The iSchools operate no journals at present, but peer-reviewing is a core part of accepting papers for conferences, for giving dissertation awards, and for giving out the iSchools research grants. Its complexities and flaws cannot be ignored.

 

1: Dance, Amber. 2023. ‘Stop the Peer-Review Treadmill. I Want to Get Off’. Nature 614 (7948): 581–83. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-00403-8.

2: Aczel, Balazs, Barnabas Szaszi, and Alex O. Holcombe. 2021. ‘A Billion-Dollar Donation: Estimating the Cost of Researchers’ Time Spent on Peer Review’. Research Integrity and Peer Review 6 (1): 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-021-00118-2.

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