Publishers can do more to address peer review fatigue

More training, greater recognition and a wider geographical purview would help expand the reviewer pool, says Miriam Maus

November 27, 2021
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As a publisher, it can be uncomfortable to hear about the difficulties faced by the army of peer reviewers on whom our industry depends.

Some report feeling overstretched and unappreciated for the unpaid work they do to uphold the integrity and validity of science. One even suggested in Times Higher Education recently that it is time to introduce payments for reviewers. Others worry about taking on such work given the pressure to publish their own outputs.

We as publishers must recognise properly that in recent years research output has increased faster than the number of engaged, motivated and competent reviewers able to provide constructive feedback. This is also why the peer review process can sometimes appear to authors to take an inordinate amount of time. With that in mind, it is essential for us to grow the reviewer pool, rather than inundating the same reliable but fatigued reviewers who we know will come back with useful comments in a reasonable time frame.

One crucial thing publishers can do is to offer training to potential new referees. Peer review can be a daunting task for those with little or no experience because it requires a great deal of skill and expertise. Publishers offer a range of programmes dedicated to boosting peer review confidence, often at no cost. The Institute of Physics’ free certification programme is tailored specifically to the physical sciences and offers a mix of online learning and reviewing workshops, leading to a certificate of exceptional competence. As well as expanding the reviewer pool, such programmes also raise the quality of reviewing. But do enough researchers know that these programmes exist?

Publishers can also improve the geographical spread of their reviewers. As reported in THE, peer-reviewed research suggests that in some disciplines, 20 per cent of the researchers perform between 69 and 94 per cent of the reviews, and our own research indicates that reviewers in India and China are called upon far less often than peers in the US or UK. Addressing this imbalance means casting the net wider when looking for potential reviewers. 

Tapping into a broader network of reviewers in terms of gender is also worth pursuing, not only because it will expand the viewer pool, but also because it will give a greater variety of viewpoints and expertise.

Some may argue, however, that such efforts ignore the main reason why more reviewers don’t come forward: the lack of recognition, from both peers and institutions, for doing so.

Recognition is particularly important for early career researchers, who often co-review papers with their supervisors. Introducing a policy of naming them as a reviewer on the published article can encourage their engagement in peer review and will foster a culture of constructive feedback where early career researchers feel confident to judge the work of more senior colleagues. At IOP Publishing, we mitigate against concerns that junior researchers might get it in the neck if they critique the work of their seniors by asking both authors and reviewers to agree to make the review public. It is then up to the reviewer to decide to be named publicly or continue to be anonymous.

We also know from our research that reviewers want feedback on the quality of their review. They want to know if it was useful, whether they could have done better and whether the publication decision was in line with their recommendation. Publishers should formalise the feedback loop, and we are looking at some of the systems available to help reviewers understand how their words have been received.

When reviewers remain anonymous, however, there is a limit to how much recognition they will receive. Our research shows that many experienced reviewers support being named as reviewers in the published article; this could work alongside award schemes and certificates to entice newcomers to get involved with peer review.

Delivering a frictionless process would also go a long way towards encouraging reviewers to continue to dedicate their time to peer reviewing. So can publishers do more to lift the administrative burden wherever possible, to make reviewing a more engaging experience?

As the volume of demand for peer review continues to mushroom, publishers’ approaches to delivering it must evolve at the same rate. Only then will peer review continue to ensure that scientific research is conducted in the most rigorous and effective way possible.

Miriam Maus is publishing director at IOP Publishing, the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics.

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Reader's comments (2)

The whole system needs changing. Academics need to be paid for writing articles, reviewing articles, and editing journals. Like it or not (I do not), Higher Education is a privatised big business affairand we should be sharing the rewards.
The whole system needs changing. Academics need to be paid for writing articles, reviewing articles, and editing journals. Like it or not (I do not), Higher Education is a privatised big business affairand we should be sharing the rewards.

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