The future of peer review in a changing landscape (2021 Peer Review Series, part 3 of 3)

To end our series on peer review, we will be looking at some of the changes happening in the peer review space and reflect on what’s in store for the future of peer review.

For a refresher, in part 1 we discussed why peer review is important and offered some advice for reviewers, then in part 2 we explored different kinds of peer review and offered advice for authors facing review.

This week we’re again joined by our four experts, all editors at highly esteemed scholarly journals:

Prof Simine Vazire, Professor of Psychology Ethics and Wellbeing at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, UoM (Editor-in-Chief of Collabra: Psychology) 

Prof Norie Neumark, Honorary Principal Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts, UoM (Founding Editor of Unlikely: Journal for the Creative Arts) 

Prof William Locke, Director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, UoM (Founding Joint Editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education) 

Dr Esther Levy, Wiley (Editor-in-Chief, Advanced Materials Technologies) 

This post will begin by considering some of the emerging trends taking place in peer review, before hearing what our contributors would like to see change in the peer review process, and what they see as the future of peer review. 

Emerging trends in peer review 

The increased circulation of preprints – early versions of papers that have not yet been formally peer reviewed – has presented challenges to traditional scholarly publishing models. Peer review processes have been adapting to this new preprint landscape, with preprint servers encouraging open review by peers, which often leads to papers being revised before formal submission to a journal. ASAPbio recently launched a Preprint Reviewer Recruitment Network to increase engagement with the open review of preprints. We have also seen the emergence of “Refereed Preprints” through services like Review Commons, a collaboration between ASAPbio and EMBO launched in 2019, which offers “independent peer review before journal submission.” And we’ve seen an increase in the linking between preprints and published versions, so people can easily access the peer-reviewed versions of papers. 

Within the journal space, we’re seeing publishers trying different approaches to peer review, including more open or transparent models. And we’re seeing networks of journals emerge that recognise each other’s peer review reports or take existing peer reviews of preprints into consideration when evaluating submissions. 

From her position at Wiley, Dr Levy has watched some of these changes in peer review and points to the different pathways editors are taking to improve the quality of review. 

Dr Levy: [An emerging trend in peer review is] experimentation with different peer review models to address perceived weaknesses of single-blind peer review (which is currently the most common peer review model among science journals). One approach to mitigating potential bias in the peer review process is to implement double- or triple-blind peer review. A different approach is to introduce greater openness and transparency, e.g., open identitieswhere reviewers and authors know the identity of each other; or open reports, where reviewer reports (and sometimes reviewer identity) are published alongside the manuscript. A few journals have adopted a model where they publish articles first and then conduct open peer review with the opportunity for the work to be revised and updated until it is in its final state. 

An increasing number of journals are also practising portable peer review, whereby an article peer reviewed at one journal is transferred with its reviews to another journal within an established journal network (subject to the authors’ approval). An extension of this is ‘community review’, where an author submits their paper to a group of journals rather than an individual journal and after peer review it is published in the most suitable journal within that group. 

Artificial Intelligence is also playing an increasingly important role, for example, in identifying suitable reviewers and flagging potential ethical issues. 

What would you change? 

We asked our contributors what they would like to change about today’s peer review environment, and they shared some valuable insights. 

Prof Vazire: I would, at a minimum, make all peer review for published papers transparent (publish the peer review history). That doesn’t mean the reviewers’ identities are shared (unless they sign their reviews), but it means the content of the reviews and editors’ decision letters are shared, so readers can see what issues came up during peer review, and whether the process was thorough and fair, at least for papers that were ultimately accepted. This is starting to happen more and more, and I think journals that don’t take this step should lose credibility. 

Prof Neumark: I think in peer reviewing, as in teaching, it is important to recognise where an author is coming from. For instance, early career researchers need more detailed and explanatory feedback and more opportunities to rework their submission. This means, therefore, that there should always be a way to signal that an author is an early career researcher. Similarly, creative-practice as research should always have peer reviewers who share the practice or have a demonstrated understanding and acceptance of the practice as a contribution to the field. Again, in this vein, authors from backgrounds that are new to a field should have peer reviewers who value diversity as vital to their field. And, on the other hand, it’s important to know where the peer reviewer is coming from. It’s well known that those who just received their own PhD are the harshest examiners of PhD’s. In this way, it’s possible that someone who is new to publishing and to peer reviewing may feel the need to ‘prove’ themselves by being overly critical. Therefore the process must ensure that no one is peer reviewed by two such reviewers and that the journal informs reviewers of this concern. 

Prof Locke: As a journal editor, it has become much more difficult to find reviewers who are willing to review, within the normal timescale and to the quality required. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The time spent peer reviewing could be recognised in academic workload models as a service to your disciplinary community. 

The future of peer review 

Finally, our contributors offered some closing thoughts on the future of peer review. 

Dr Levy: While peer review is not perfect it is integral to the entire research process. The accepted model(s) may change or adapt to trends and technologies, but peer review will continue to play an essential role in scholarly publishing.  

Prof Locke: [Peer review] is in a critical state, in need of careful attention and renewal as part of a new professionalism in academia. 

Prof Neumark: Peer review can only be a vital part of publishing if the aim is to benefit the researchers and the field in a way that allows for diversity, change, and development. The gate-keeping tone of some peer reviewing must be recognised as stifling and stuffy and having no place in the future of peer review. 

Prof Neumark’s closing thoughts, here, remind us of the theme of Peer Review Week 2021, ‘Identity in Peer Review’, which she and Prof Locke addressed in part 1 of this series. For peer review to continue to fulfil its purpose, it needs to reflect the diversity of wider society, avoid gatekeeping, and be aware of individual and institutional biases. Only then can a diverse and varied research landscape to flourish. For more on this topic, we’d recommend the recent Scholarly Kitchen post ‘Ask the Chefs: How Does Identity Influence Peer Review?’ 

find out more about Peer review week 2021

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