Why Use More Than One Peer Reviewer?

May 31, 2018 Thomas Gaston

It is a common assumption that papers will be reviewed by two reviewers before a decision is made. In fact, that is the average for most Wiley journals, not least because that is the default setting for the electronic editorial office systems we use. But there is no rule that says this should be the case. It is editors, not reviewers, who make decisions on papers. Reviewers provide expert opinions to help inform editors’ decisions. There is no obligation on editors to consult a specific number of reviewers before making a decision. Editors need the freedom to desk reject papers without external review or to consult additional reviewers if they require further guidance. So why are the majority of papers sent to two reviewers? Here are five reasons why it is a good idea to send papers to more than one reviewer:

  1. Two Heads Are Better Than One – Reviewing a manuscript is not the same as marking an exam paper. Manuscripts should be reporting original research - there is no answers sheet to check whether the authors got the “right answer”. Research is an iterative process and the research presented in recent articles may be falsified or superseded by later research. In any case, the reviewers were not present when the research was conducted, so will never be able to assess whether the reported results are correct. What reviewers can do is judge whether the research methodology is sound, whether the results have been analyzed in an appropriate way, and whether the results have been presented intelligibly. Inevitably two reviewers are going to have a better chance of picking up any errors than just one.
  2. Reducing Subjectivity – While presenting the results of scientific research is an objective exercise, the interpretation of those results inevitably introduces subjectivity. Most scientific papers include a discussion section, where the authors will write about the implications of their research. These opinions are legitimate, and often the most readable part of the article, but risk spinning the results in unjustified ways. The issue of subjectivity is greater in non-scientific disciplines where a larger part of the research is interpretation. Again, articles are not invalid just because they are written from a particular perspective. However, having several people involved in assessing research introduces some measure of objectivity. The more reviewers, the greater the chance of avoiding over-stating significance.
  3. Reducing the Risk of Bias – Reviewers are human and open to all the fallibilities of humanity, including conscious and unconscious bias. There is good evidence from various fields of human behavior that people can be susceptible to bias based on issues including age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and prestige. These forms of bias have no place in scientific and scholarly research – research should be judged on its own merits, not on who conducted it. One way to reduce the risk of bias, conscious or otherwise, is to have more than one reviewer.
  4. Reducing the Risk of Fraud – Unfortunately, there are many documented cases of individuals trying to manipulate the review process to their own advantage. One common example of this is the use of fake reviewers, where authors will recommend reviewers and give contact details for dummy accounts that they have access to, in the hopes that they can review their own paper. Another example is where a reviewer will intentionally try to get a paper rejected because it competes with his/her own research. There are other examples. One way to reduce the risk of such manipulation of the review process is to consult more than one reviewer from as diverse a pool of reviewers as possible.
  5. Maintaining the Perceived Integrity of Peer Review – In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts”, robust and rigorous peer review has never been more important. The scientific and scholarly literature needs to stand above the morass of internet comment. To do that it must be seen to be maintaining a high standard of pre-publication assessment. Peer review not only picks up errors and improves the quality of the presentation, but it also provides a hallmark of quality for the published article. When peer review is compromised, or lacks rigor, it not only risks introducing errors into published articles, it also tarnishes the perceived integrity of peer review. One part of that perceived integrity is that articles are sent for external review before publication and that external review is objective and free from bias. Consulting more than one reviewer for each article is one way to maintain that standard.

About the Author

Thomas Gaston

Peer Review Management, Wiley // Thomas Gaston is a Managing Editor in Wiley's Peer Review Management department.

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