Why Do Reviewers Review?

May 18, 2017 Kim Barrett

As an Editor-in-Chief (for The Journal of Physiology), I am acutely aware that ensuring the quality of our content rests heavily not only on our hard-working editorial board, but also on the anonymous reviewers who supply recommendations on the quality and likely impact of submitted manuscripts. In the current climate, when the very importance of peer review as a gatekeeper for scientific quality is being questioned, one well might ask why reviewers review, and what they hope to get out of the process.  I think these are questions that all editors must consider to make sure that this critical work is recognized and rewarded.

Emerging issues with peer review

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When editors get together to discuss their challenges, it’s a fair bet that at least some will tell you that it is getting harder to secure quality reviews. I previously served as an Editor-in-Chief for another journal around 20 years ago, and it is certainly my impression that we often now need to invite more people in order to secure an adequate number of reviews for each manuscript, and that there are also occasional concerns with quality and/or timeliness. In part, this may be due to the massive proliferation of both manuscripts and journals, without a commensurate increase in the number of reviewers. Reviewers are also sometimes confused about the status of journals with ostensibly familiar names, some of which may have lax peer review standards or may even be predatory. As a result, they may decide to forego reviewing for any journals, including those that are clearly legitimate. There is also a burgeoning conversation about the scholarly publishing model, encompassing comments that reviewers are providing “free” labor for “wealthy” publishers. Some are even espousing the “publish everything model”, with peer review relegated to post-publication comments.

What are the rewards?

The foregoing notwithstanding, I believe most scientists, including me, still wish to participate in peer review for a variety of reasons. At a prosaic level, it is difficult to expect others to review your own work if you are not willing to reciprocate. Serving as a peer reviewer is also intellectually stimulating, and an opportunity to have an insider’s view of new directions in one’s field. Reviewing also provides academic/reputational credibility– it is an external validation of your expertise that not only satisfies expectations for engagement with University and public service at the time of tenure review, but also allows you to demonstrate to your colleagues that you are part of the club. There is also the opportunity to sharpen your own skills as a writer and researcher by seeing what works well (and what doesn’t) – this is particularly valuable for early career researchers. Finally, some journals have experimented with providing tangible rewards -- such as CDs or making a charitable contribution on the reviewer’s behalf – although it is my personal belief that these are not particularly effective in motivating those who would not already be predisposed to reviewing.

What recognition are reviewers seeking?

Consistent with comments above, many reviewers are seeking academic currency, particularly with respect to recognition of their expertise, and perhaps even leading to tangible input to a journal’s editorial direction. However, there may be issues both with tracking and validation of service actually provided. I myself have often forgotten to list many of the journals for which I provided service at the time of academic review; conversely, there is little to prevent the unscrupulous from claiming service that never actually took place. Researchers are also a competitive bunch, by nature, and like to be singled out if they have made particularly meritorious and/or consistently timely contributions. Early career researchers may also especially value feedback on their performance, benchmarking and even training in peer review.

Recognizing reviewers in ways that serve them

I believe all editors should publicly recognize their reviewers on a regular basis. In some journals, this may extend to publication of the reviewers’ names along with the final article, although there may be some risk in this approach and personally I continue to favor preservation of the anonymity of the process. Nevertheless, an annual or quarterly thank you, listing all who have reviewed perhaps with a league table of total reviews and timeliness, is a small investment that pays dividends. This listing, moreover, deserves better than being buried where it can be stumbled upon only by those who flip to the end of a print copy. Rather, in the current era, it should be promoted actively via the journal’s website, e-newsletter and/or social media channels. Reviewers also appreciate receipt of all reviewer comments as well as the final decision letter for manuscripts they have reviewed, preferably without having to jump through any additional hoops (signing in) to get them. Increasingly, reviewers are looking for a pain-free mechanism to track their reviews, which can assist at the time of tenure and promotion. No wonder, therefore, that the relatively new Publons service already boasts that more than 150,000 researchers have signed up and posted more than 800,000 reviews (at the time of writing). This will only grow as publishers, including Wiley, directly transmit completed reviews to Publons (subject to the reviewer’s approval) to be filed in the reviewer’s account. Reviewers may also be wooed with discounts/waivers of charges to facilitate publishing their own work, further building journal loyalty.

Considerations for early-career researchers

No-one comes out of the womb knowing how to review a manuscript, but as demands have grown on faculty members’ time, some are less able than before to induct their graduate students and post-docs into the peer review process via the apprenticeship model. Journals and their editors can fill this gap by providing webinars and live workshops at scientific meetings, as well as editorials that supply reviewer guidance. Templates, clearly-stated expectations, and feedback are also greatly valued by those who are just beginning their reviewing career. There are also some broader efforts emerging around training. The American Physiological Society has long hosted both live and on-line Professional Skills Training courses on the topic of Writing and Reviewing for Scientific Journals. Similarly, Publons will shortly launch its virtual “Academy”, aimed at teaching early career researchers the art of peer review and, importantly, connecting them with editors so their new skills can be put to use. Others are experimenting with engaging junior investigators as observers or even junior partners in the editorial decision-making process. These investments will help to ensure a steady flow of expert reviewers for editors to call on as manuscript submissions continue to rise.

Closing thoughts

In my opinion, the key reasons for reviewers to review, therefore, are to provide service to their discipline that is valued for advancement, and to be recognized as a respected member of that discipline. To ensure that reviewing remains attractive to those most qualified to provide expert advice, editors should pay particular attention to efforts designed to recognize and reward these key individuals. I also believe we have a special responsibility to develop the skills of the next generation of peer reviewers, as well as finding innovative ways to acquaint them with the nuts and bolts of the editorial process. The future of our journals depends on our success in these goals.

Why do you review? Let us know in the comments below

Image credit: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

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