We talk a lot about peer review in the scholarly communications world. Many of us – and our organizations – are working to improve both the process and the experience for researchers, which has led to a significant increase in the range of options available, especially – but not exclusively – for reviewing journal articles. From double blind to completely open review, pre- and/or post-publication, and even transferrable peer review, not to mention the work being done on peer review recognition and validation by organizations like Publons and PRE, there’s a plethora of new approaches and services to choose from.
But what do researchers make of all this? What are their experiences of peer review? How and why do they review themselves, and what do they get from reviews of their own work? In this reflection from researchers around the world, we asked some of them to tell us about their views of peer review.
By and large, their feedback was very positive, with good experiences outweighing bad and universal agreement that peer review is, as Elizabeth Briody of Cultural Keys, USA, says: “a critically important process for evaluating the merit, content, relevance, and usefulness of scholarly publications” – or as Hugh Jarvis, Cybrarian, University at Buffalo, USA, describes it: “Peer review is the glue of academic publishing.” Professor Saurabh Sinha, Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg, South Africa agrees that: “it positions our work with respect to the body of already published knowledge. The approach also helps to ensure, as far as possible, the correctness of the work, elimination of potential blind spots, and validity of assumptions for a practical world.”
Pretty much everyone noted the importance of peer review – both as reviewer and author – to them personally as well as professionally. For example, Professor Yongcheng Hu, a medical researcher in China commented that: “Peer review is an essential arbiter of scientific quality, no doubt, it has a great impact on scientific communication and is of great value in determining academic papers’ suitability for publication, while for me, via personal experience, it is also an process of exploration and sublimation.” Erik Ingelson, Professor of Molecular Epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, currently Visiting Professor at Stanford University, USA adds: “Mostly, my experiences of being a reviewer have been positive; I get to think critically about study design and methods and learn new things on the way. Similarly, most of the time the review process is positive also as the author, since you get valuable input and the paper that comes out is often better than the original submission.” Anna Cupani, a Belgian researcher, agrees: “Having someone reading and commenting on your research is beneficial for several reasons: it validates your work, it confirms what you are doing is meaningful not only for you but for a wider scientific audience and it helps you focus and improve your research. You never grasp the meaning of something as deeply as when you have to explain it to someone else!” And Lee Pooi See, Associate Chair (Research), School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore adds: “My personal experience of being reviewed has been interesting; especially in receiving scientific viewpoints from different reviewers on emerging topics. Peer review also steers us to identify those unaddressed aspects of the related research topics.”
Several people also commented that there are upsides and downsides to peer review. Janine Milbradt, who is currently working on her PhD at the Institute for Human Genetics, University of Cologne, Germany, says: “You never know what is going to happen! All you can be sure about is that you will have to put another 3-6 months of work into your paper. Having a paper reviewed is a nerve-stretching process, filled with hopes and dreams about the reviewers actually liking your research. On a more serious note, the review process is a very important tool to find incomprehensible or knowledge-lacking parts of your research to improve your paper.” Professor Wong Limsoon, KITHCT Professor of Computer Science, National University of Singapore comments: “I appreciate very much constructive reviews that gave me really useful suggestions on my work. I am sometimes annoyed by uninformed comments, but fortunately these are few.”
So what improvements to peer review would our group of researchers like to see? To quote Professor Sinha again: “Scholarly peer-review has…the opportunity to improve beyond the past, where today, coupled with data, crowd-sourced reviews/discussion, newer open-access technologies could play a dynamic role of developing credibility of research-work and at the same time increasing competition!” Hugh Jarvis likewise has “great hopes that peer review will have develop a much more expanded role in the future, and provide input before and after publication, similar to the role the comments serve in Current Anthropology and the product ratings in sites like Amazon.com.” And Joao Bosco Pesquero, Professor, Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil would also like to see a more open approach: “The more openly we produce science and expose our work to criticism, the more it helps to improve what we do.”
Perhaps the best summary of why researchers continue to value peer review – both as authors and as reviewers – comes from PhD student, Grace Pold of UMass – Amherst, USA, who told us: “Although I have had the opportunity to formally review only four or five papers, reviewing papers is one of my favorite things to do. First off, it is a good reminder that not all papers are born perfect, and when I am struggling to try and finish my own work and the prospect of a well-polished manuscript seems too far in the distance, it gives me hope. Second, is there a better opportunity to see what your colleagues are working on and thinking about than by reviewing their work? Third, the idea of being able to help shape the information released into the public sphere is a very enticing. Fourth, it is a great excuse to really think about the assumptions you and others make in your research…when you review, it is your responsibility to stop and think about why this is the way things are done. Fifth, thinking up alternative interpretations and then filtering through the data presented in the paper to determine the robustness of the conclusions is a rewarding challenge. Finally, reviewing papers provides an opportunity to slow-down and formulate a full, well-rounded opinion on something, something which happens unfortunately rarely in the life of the frantic modern scientist stuck in with the nitty gritty details of doing experiments. And I think that from a personal perspective, that final point of generating a sense of accomplishment in doing a good job in thinking things through to the end is probably the greatest motivation for me to review papers.”