Academic publishers must respond to reviewer fatigue

Institute of Physics Publishing is making innovative efforts to broaden the referee pool beyond the usual suspects, says Laura Feetham-Walker

July 7, 2024
A dog with glasses sleeping on a book, symbolising reviewer fatigue
Source: iStock/Petra Richli

Peer review is under pressure. The increase in global scientific output, coupled with ever-increasing demands on academics’ time, has led an increasing number of peer reviewers to feel overburdened.

One obvious way to relieve that pressure is to expand the pool of reviewers. Historically, they have overwhelmingly been senior researchers, based in high-income countries, with a skew towards the male gender. But while it seems logical to ask people with extensive experience of being at the cutting edge of science to judge others’ contributions, such a narrow pool has a limited capacity and a particular perspective. It doesn’t reflect the breadth of potentially novel viewpoints among less represented groups, such as women, people from low- and middle-income countries, and junior reviewers.

Many publishers, accordingly, are already trying to diversify their reviewer pools. However, the Institute of Physics Publishing’s State of Peer Review 2024 report indicates that many capable researchers still receive fewer invitations than they have the capacity to accept. This suggests that certain groups remain under-represented in the peer review process.

This is why, in 2020, we at IOPP launched the Peer Review Excellence programme to create a more diverse, skilled and engaged group of peer reviewers by addressing the barriers that have historically limited participation.

One element of that is IOP Trusted Reviewer status. This certification recognises the 15 per cent of reviewers who provide the most thorough reviews – amounting, so far, to 14,000 people. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with many appreciating the recognition and its reinforcement of their commitment to high standards in peer review. The scheme also makes it easier for our editors to identify excellent reviewers, which makes the whole reviewing process faster and more efficient.

The second element of our approach is to offer free online peer review training. Refereeing can be a daunting task for those with little or no experience of the process, but our training programme, tailored specifically for the physical sciences, is designed to boost reviewers’ confidence by teaching them what to look for in a manuscript. The training has been taken by 7,000 reviewers since it was launched in 2021.

We also offer more than 20 interactive peer reviewing workshops annually, co-chaired by leading academics and targeted at under-represented groups, including scientists from traditionally excluded geographies and early career researchers. These workshops are very well attended, and are evidently effective: about one in 10 attendees have gone on to receive IOP Trusted Reviewer status.

Meanwhile, in 2023, we became the first major publisher to offer structured feedback on review reports. We internally rate all original reviews to monitor quality, and reviewers can opt in to be notified of our ratings, which include a numerical evaluation and an evaluation matrix.

Again, the reaction of the peer review community has been fabulous, and we see that the constructive insights are particularly valued by early career researchers.

Another way for this group to improve their skills is via the co-review scheme that we have recently introduced. This allows senior reviewers to formally invite junior colleagues to collaborate on reviews, providing them with mentorship and shared credit. This initiative also formally acknowledges the significant refereeing assistance that junior researchers already informally offer senior colleagues and promotes a sense of community among reviewers.

Co-reviewing has expanded and diversified our reviewer pool, bringing in early career researchers who are then more likely to be invited to review again in their own right. The scheme is also improving rigour, with the quality of co-reviews being rated higher by our editorial staff than solo reviews.

We hope that setting all this out might give other publishers some ideas about how to respond to reviewer fatigue but we certainly aren’t assuming that we have all the answers. We will continue to listen to our reviewer community and make adjustments to our process in response.

That way, our peer reviewing capacity will be able to expand to better meet demand while maintaining timeliness, high standards and broad representation.

Laura Feetham-Walker is reviewer engagement manager at Institute of Physics Publishing.

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Reader's comments (2)

None of which addresses increasing (at least in my field) reviewer dissatisfaction with doing extra work to generate profits for commercial academic publishers. IoP and other learned-society publishers can at least be understood as work for a community non-profit, but fatigue is just one more reason to refuse to provide free expert labour to the commercials.
"One obvious way to relieve that pressure is to expand the pool of reviewers." Better, reduce the number of submissions and the proliferation of publications by shifting the focus and incentive systems for academics and institutions away from the "publish or perish" cult(ure), from quantity to quality of output (less is more), from time-based competition to thoughtful long-term collaboration (being first is not always best), and overcome the obsession with impact factors and rankings (spreading the load beyond "top" journals). The above, of course, is not in the interest of commercial publishers (nor university managements and regulators in thrall of the neoliberal ideology advocating unfettered market forces and dog-eats-dog competition as guiding principles).