Most academics feel that they have suffered “unprofessional” treatment from peer reviewers and journal editors, such as having a research paper rejected without a proper explanation, a study suggests.
Almost 60 per cent of academics say that they have encountered at least one journal editor who failed to accept or to notice obvious weaknesses in a reviewer’s report, according to a poll conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds.
The survey, which elicited responses from 830 people, also found that about 60 per cent consider the quality of academic journal editors to be “very variable”.
The large-scale survey was undertaken as part of a study of journal editors, who are sometimes described as “kingmakers” for their power to make or break scholarly careers. However, one of the researchers behind it said that they had found little evidence that editors could be portrayed as “excessively powerful gatekeepers”.
Some of the areas of concern raised by the report, Academic Journal Editors’ Professionalism: Perceptions of Power, Proficiency and Personal Agendas, were discussed last week in Newport at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. They included “seemingly irrational or unexplained editorial” decisions and “abrogations of editorial responsibilities”, such as uncritical acceptance of reviewers’ comments.
One author reported how a paper had been rejected with no explanation. Another was told only that an article was “not relevant enough”; while a third heard from an editor: “We get too many submissions.”
Among other complaints were a paper being rejected despite receiving excellent reviews. Also causing problems were turnaround times. These could take up to a year, a length that was labelled “unacceptable”, particularly because they could blight early career prospects. In one case, “the process took five years, 10 reviewers and three editors and they rejected the paper”, an author said.
Various ethical issues were also raised by some of the 217 respondents who complained about failings in the peer-review system.
One author reported having been asked by an editor to add to a paper extra citations referencing the journal in question, to ensure that its “impact factor” remained high.
Another claimed that it was “mandatory” to reference the editor’s own work in a similar effort to boost their research impact.
Despite the many complaints detailed, the study’s lead author, Linda Evans, professor of leadership and professional learning at Leeds’ School of Education, said she believed that such breaches of professionalism were “isolated and generally atypical occurrences”.
Interviewees reported “relatively few negative experiences” with journals, while less than 10 per cent of respondents thought that the current system was unfit for purpose.
Interviews with 20 journal editors revealed that their primary motivations were altruistic, such as loyalty to a subject, and that they received little remuneration (allowances usually ranged from £2,000 to £5,000 a year) or institutional recognition for their work.
Indeed, according to the authors, editors viewed running a journal as an unrecompensed “duty, rather than a source of pleasure” and often struggled to find “high-quality publishable material”.
“Our research uncovered relatively little support and justification for casting and portraying academic journal editors as excessively powerful gatekeepers who jealously guard and control ingress into, and progression within, the academy,” Professor Evans said.
The study, which was part-funded by the SRHE, found that although “journal editors inevitably wield power…this is generally not a malignant or oppressive form of agency”, she added.