Each year, our team at Cabells celebrates Peer Review Week (PRW) and recognizes the fact that so much of the work we do each day revolves around peer review, which is the backbone of scholarly communication and the key to maintaining research quality. The theme this year for PRW is “Peer Review and the Future of Publishing,” which would be an appropriate theme every year. To work as intended and as needed, peer review will need to continuously adapt and evolve along with publishing.
The importance of peer review to the quality and overall success of a journal can’t be overstated. For a journal to be recognized in the academic or medical community as legitimate, a robust peer review system must be in place. In recent years, the scholarly community has been shown time and again the results of substandard (or nonexistent) peer review. It has also become clear that identifying an effective and efficient model of peer review has proven to be a challenge for publishers.
Our friend, Daley White, a research scientific editor with the Moffitt Cancer Center, has written an excellent piece discussing the current state of peer review and highlighting a few promising alternative strategies. That piece, along with another by Daley discussing the role of generative artificial intelligence in peer review, should not be missed.
The bedrock of scholarly publishing
At its core, peer review is about benefiting the knowledge base by establishing quality control with respect to published research, which is then used to generate more knowledge. By publishing research papers that have been thoughtfully peer reviewed, academic journals make it possible for researchers around the world to learn about the latest findings in their field. This helps advance knowledge and to foster collaboration amongst researchers. Researchers, funders, and the public all expect that research has been reviewed, is sound, and worthy of being built upon.
Peer review helps to ensure published work is high-quality with findings that are accurate and reliable by helping to identify and correct errors, omissions, and biases. Ultimately, authors are responsible for conducting sound research and not fabricating data or results. Unfortunately, the immense pressure to publish along with the industry’s unwillingness to publish null results, both contribute to making this responsibility an insurmountable challenge for some.
To be effective, peer review must be unbiased and transparent though the extent to which journals are open about their review process varies. Promoting and expanding transparency and accountability in the research and peer review processes shows readers how the paper was evaluated and helps them understand the reasons for its acceptance or rejection, which helps to build trust in the publication process and the research itself.
Time after time
Can it be assumed that peer review is consistently conducted with the necessary rigor when in most cases it is added to the workload of already very busy and time-strapped reviewers? Most workplaces don’t provide an allowance of time for peer review, and there is no compensation for conducting reviews. So, without incentives, peer review is conducted solely to contribute to a knowledge base that needs to be carefully managed and safeguarded.
Along with pressure on scholars to find the time to conduct reviews, there is pressure on journals to review papers quickly. But can speed be reconciled with quality? Speedy peer review, when taken to an extreme, is an indication of the type of substandard or virtually nonexistent peer review often found in predatory journals.
While it’s important to authors that articles are published in a timely manner (which requires timely peer review), there is a correlation between speed and quality that the industry as a whole is working under. Often, the state of a journals peer review process comes down to which journals have more resources available. Not all journals can swing having an in-house statistician to review research statistics on staff. Training in peer review as part of PhD programs would also be valuable – while early career researchers are very knowledgeable in their fields despite being relatively inexperienced, having ECR’s conduct peer review with no training is less than optimal.
So, this PRW we will consider these and other ideas as we continue our work as champions of peer review – and Cabells team member Clarice continues her work as a member of the PRW Steering Committee. Our work at Cabells will adapt and evolve right along with peer review and publishing into the future. What won’t change is the key role played by peer review in maintaining the quality, transparency, and accountability of research and the integrity of knowledge.