The Failures and Futures of the Peer Review Process
Elspeth K. Ritchie from Newcastle University’s Biopharmaceutical Bioprocessing Technology Centre reflects on discussions between academic journal editors and writers after attending the Voice of Young Science “Peer Review: Nuts & Bolts” workshop, which was supported by several organisations including PLOS.
The words “peer review process” mean different things throughout a scientist’s career. For the established professor, it may be a well worn path. Meanwhile, it strikes terror into those preparing to submit for the first time. For those wanting to manage that fear by better understanding the process, events such as the Voice of Young Science “Peer Review: The Nuts & Bolts” workshop are highly recommended.
Peer Review: Nuts & Bolts
Assembled at Guy’s Campus, King’s College London was a varied cross‑section of persons involved in peer review. A guest panel of editors represented nearly all aspects in the post‑submission peer review process: Dr Elizabeth Moylan, Professor John Gilbert, and Alice Ellingham.
Before presentations by the guests and a Q&A panel, the audience was allowed to prepare mentally by splitting into groups to discuss their experiences with peer review, its strengths and its weaknesses. In my group, no two people had the same experiences with peer review. Through a computer scientist in this group, several of us learned of “conference peer review” for the first time. Additional alternatives suggested were crowd‑sourced and post‑publication.
A common point was a dislike, or worse distrust, of a reviewer’s anonymity and the power he then holds over the authors. Intriguingly, the issue of anonymity was repeated from the editors in three ways. First was the issue of reviewers disappearing after being entrusted with a manuscript – a frustration not limited to academic journals. Second was potential abuse by unscrupulous self‑promoters.
The third issue was more touching: the appreciation of peer reviewers or lack thereof. A reviewer’s anonymity may assure him greater confidence to speak freely, however his contributions are undervalued, unpaid, and effectively unacknowledged. There was an emphasis by editors on the strain the global pool of reviewers is under. A particular point was that few reviewers could be experts in all aspects of a paper, even when excluding the strongly multidisciplinary (e.g. employing multivariate statistical analyses of bioreactors for dissemination to process engineers).
Although there is a need for more peer reviewers, there is a reluctance to volunteer due to the fact that while we may be experts in our field, we are not experts at peer review. The promotion of peer review as part of a scientist’s responsibilities and the provision of training to give scientists greater confidence to volunteer as reviewers are missing from both undergraduate and postgraduate education.
The main issue of peer review throughout appeared to be sheer volume and scale. The traditional peer review process, which been in development since 1731, may be ideal for stringently defined journals for which focused reviewer pools can be developed. However journals chronicling rapidly growing, multidisciplinary, or poorly defined fields require something more appropriate. The peer review process is not obsolete, but it must adapt to both modern research and the numbers involved.
Whichever peer review processes are used, the message was clear: we need to become more engaged in what happens to a manuscript once someone hits the “Submit” button.
Elspeth K. Ritchie is a research engineer from Newcastle University conducting research at Lonza (http://www.lonza.com/) in Slough as part of the Engineering Doctorate in Biopharmaceutical Process Development (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/bbtc/).