Peer review is a critical aspect of modern academic research, but it’s no secret that journals are struggling to provide high-quality and timely peer review for submitted manuscripts. It’s clear that changes are needed to increase the capacity and efficiency of peer review without reducing the quality of the review. However, several alternative peer review models are up to the challenge. We’ll discuss the most well-established alternative peer review strategies, identify some commonalities between models, and provide key takeaways for everyone in academia.
The Current State of Peer Review
Before we can discuss new innovations, it’s important to evaluate the modern peer review structure. Peer review serves as a vetting process for journals to filter out research manuscripts that are considered unsuitable for their readership, whether that’s because of poorly defined methods, suspicious or fraudulent results, a lack of supporting evidence or proof, or unconstructive findings. After peer reviewers read and provide their criticism of a manuscript, they’ll generally advise journals to 1) accept a submission as-is, 2) accept a submission with minor revisions, 3) request major revisions before reevaluating the suitability of a paper for publication, or 4) outright reject a manuscript. Manuscripts will often go through two or three rounds of peer review, usually with the same peer reviewers, before a paper is ready for publication.
Most medical journals require at least two experts in a related field to review a manuscript. This is typically done through anonymized peer review, in which the authors don’t know the identity of the reviewers, but the open peer review model (in which the identity of peer reviewers is known to the author, with or without their reviews being publicly available following manuscript publication) has been gaining traction in recent years.
The Problems with Modern Peer Review
As the academic publishing industry rapidly expands and becomes increasingly digital, the current peer review model has been struggling to keep up. Peer review is resource-intensive, especially in money and time. Peer review is voluntary and reviewers are almost universally not compensated for their contributions, leading to a lack of motivation to participate, especially given the time and effort peer review requires. The lack of transparency in peer review has also been increasingly criticized in recent years because it can lead to biased reviews and unequal standards. Despite this, many academicians place unwarranted trust in the validity and efficacy of the peer review process.
On top of all of this, the peer review process is notoriously slow. This is usually attributed to the shortage of qualified peer reviewers, and with good reason: a 2016 survey found that 20% of individuals performed 69% to 94% of reviews. It’s a tough problem to tackle, but there are some innovative new peer review strategies that aim to improve the timeliness and accessibility of peer review, maximize the effective use of peer reviewers’ time, and maintain or improve upon modern quality expectations.
Alternative Strategies for Peer Review
Portable peer review
Overview: Authors pay a company to perform independent, single-blind (ie, anonymized), unbiased peer review, which is then shared with journals at the time of submission. A subset of this is Peer Review by Endorsement (also called Author-Guided Peer Review), in which authors request their peers to review their manuscripts, which are then provided to journals.
Pros: Journals aren’t responsible for coordinating peer reviews; avoids redundancy of multiple sets of peer reviewers evaluating the same paper for different journals
Cons: Additional fee is burdensome for authors, especially as article processing charges become more common; not many journals currently accept externally provided peer reviews; potential bias for Peer Review by Endorsement
Pre–peer review commenting
Overview: Informal community input is given on a manuscript while authors are simultaneously submitting the paper to journals. This input can be either open (eg, publicly available materials for anyone to comment on) or closed (eg, materials are shown only to a select group of commenters). You may be familiar with a common pre–peer review commenting platform without even knowing it: preprints, and many of the same pros and cons apply here.
Pros: Strengthens the quality of a paper before journal evaluation; faster than traditional peer review; typically involves low costs; may include moderators who filter out unconstructive comments
Cons: Allows non-experts to voice incorrect opinions; reduces editorial control; introduces threat of plagiarism or scooping; may make faulty or inadequate science publicly available
Overview: Peer review takes place after the manuscript has already been published by a journal. Editors invite a group of qualified experts in the field to provide feedback on the publication. Manuscripts may or may not receive some level of peer review before publication.
Pros: Reduces time delay for peer review; comments are typically public and transparent; theoretically provides continuous peer review as new developments and discoveries are made, which may support, disprove, change, or otherwise affect research findings
Cons: Requires buy-in from many peer reviewers who are willing to review; faulty or inadequate science may be made publicly available; can become resource-intensive, especially time-intensive
Overview: Studies are registered with a journal before research is performed and undergo peer review both before and after research is conducted. The first round of peer review focuses on the quality of the methods, hypothesis, and background, and the second round focuses on the findings.
Pros: Papers are typically guaranteed acceptance with the journal; each round of peer review hypothetically requires less time/effort; papers are typically more thorough and scientifically sound; provides research support and limited mentorship, which can be especially valuable for early-career investigators
Cons: Two rounds of peer review are required instead of one; reduces procedural flexibility; logistical delays are common; seen as inefficient for sequential or ongoing research.
Artificial Intelligence–Assisted Review
Overview: Artificial intelligence and machine learning software are developed to catch common errors or shortcomings, allowing peer reviewers to focus on more conceptually-based criticism, such as the paper’s novelty, rigor, and potential impact. This strategy is more widely seen in humanities and social sciences research.
Pros: Increases efficient use of peer reviewers’ time; improves standardization of review; can automate processes like copyediting or formatting
Cons: Requires extensive upfront cost and development time as well as ongoing maintenance; prone to unintentional bias; ethically dubious; requires human oversight
Commonalities and Takeaways
There are a few key similarities and fundamental practices that are found throughout several of the peer review strategies discussed above:
- Peer reviewer compensation, either in the form of financial compensation or public recognition/resume material— though this can often cause its own problems
- Decoupling the peer review process from the publication process
- Expanding the diversity of peer reviewers
- Improving transparency of peer review
- Improving standardization of peer review, often through paper priority scores or weighted reviewer scoring based on review evaluation ratings/reputation
The key overall takeaway from these new strategies? Change may be slow, but it’s certainly coming. More and more journals are embracing shifts in peer review, such as the growing traction of transferable peer review (i.e., if a manuscript is transferred between journals, any available reviewers’ comments will be shared with the new journal) and the transition from anonymous to open identification of reviewers, and most experts agree that peer review practices will continue to change in upcoming years.
If you’re interested in becoming more involved in leading the evolution of peer review, take some time to research the many proposed alternative peer review strategies. Try to start conversations about new peer review models in academic spaces to spread the word about alternative strategies. If you’re able, try to participate in validated, evidence-driven research to either validate the efficacy of alternative peer review models or demonstrate the inefficiency of our current structure. Change always requires motivated and driven individuals who are willing to champion the cause. The communal push toward revolutionizing peer review is clearly growing—now, it’s up to the community to determine which model will prevail.