Peer and present dangers (1 of 3)

September 20, 2012

I agree entirely with Stephen Mumford's timely critique of the peer-review process for academic journals and the system's lack of transparency ("Peer pressure", Opinion, 13 September).

I have been asked on numerous occasions to review articles that are only tangentially relevant to my research. Most recently I peer-reviewed an article that did match my expertise, but the other reviewer openly admitted that they did not know much about the topic in question and that they had asked their daughter about it! (I rejected the article and the other reviewer accepted it.)

It was also revealing when compiling an email list to publicise my recently published book that a number (albeit small) of the editorial board members of journals in my field were uncontactable or dead. I reflected on what this demonstrated about the professionalism of publishers and journal editorial boards. It is true that some boards run transparent elections, but many journals seem to be opaque fiefdoms.

What Mumford does not do is suggest how the process could be professionalised and made more transparent and accountable.

First, the research excellence framework takes no account (and indeed militates against) the free labour needed to peer-review and edit journals, and this should change.

Second, peer reviewers spend time and lend expertise when reviewing, and therefore should be paid for it. I believe that even nominal fees would encourage peer reviewers to spend more time on the work and complete it in a more timely manner (I am currently waiting for feedback on an article submitted to a journal more than five months ago - the publication had promised me there would be a two-month turnaround).

Third, there should be a clear link between peer review and the make-up of editorial boards: if academics peer-review for a journal, they should be entitled to membership.

The final point is the most contentious, but if peer reviewers were named, it might make journal editors invest more time in choosing appropriate ones who would write only comments that they feel happy to be identified with, thus preventing the worst kind of unconsidered review. Open peer review is now accepted in mathematics, astrophysics and medicine, so perhaps it is time for the arts, humanities and social sciences to consider it.

I believe that journals must change, and I hope there can be more dialogue and debate about this vital question.

Daniel Conway, Lecturer in politics, Loughborough University

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