De-pressurising the system for researchers

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Chris Graf outlines three challenges for future research publishers to ease the pressure on reviewers

The theme of this year’s Peer Review Week begged the question: what does the future hold for peer review in academic publishing? The current research environment, characterised by hyper-competition and a relentless drive for research output, has placed unique pressures on research authors and peer reviewers. Part of the solution, we think, lies in how publishers can combine technology and human resources in just the right way. Like many research publishers, Springer Nature believes that putting researchers at the heart of publishing is an essential part of our work to add trust and value to the research system. This includes doing our best to relieve some of the pressure researchers face, in part by making everything we do for them more streamlined. That is why we are investing in systems to help researchers to publish their peer-reviewed research as quickly as possible, and to communicate it in the most effective ways. 

Discussions about research culture use words like hyper-competition (A kinder research culture is possible), the drive for research output could be described as relentless, and questions are asked about whether the system (including research publishing) is focused more on what is produced and how much of it, rather than how it was produced and its quality. Growth in research output continues to rise, with publications reaching 2.9 million articles in 2020 compared with 1.9 million in 2010 (Scopus). And peer reviewers, essential players in the whole process, are increasingly scarce and hard to find. Does that sound like a sector at risk of overheating? And what, if that might be true, can we do about it?

Here are three challenges, then, that research publishers can grapple with to ease the pressure for researchers while we hold close our allyship and advocacy for research quality, diversity, and positive progress. First, we can make the whole digital experience for research authors and peer reviewers much better. We continue to invest in and develop technology to support the author experience and publishing workflow. One such example is the development of the Springer Nature Article Processing Platform, which aims to provide authors, editors and reviewers with a streamlined, simple to use experience from submission to publication (Annual Progress Report 2022). To date more than 33,000 editors are now using the system and our editors have worked with peer reviewers and authors to process more than 135,000 articles.

Second, we can make new research communication opportunities that are immediate and fast for research authors, while their article is in review. Our free pre-print service In Review lets authors post their papers as a preprint when submitting to a journal and gives them real-time updates on their manuscript’s progress through peer review. This first-of-its-kind option allows research authors to benefit from early sharing through collaboration opportunities and early citations. Over 1,000 Springer Nature journal titles are now part of In Review (Society for Scholarly Publishing). 

Third, we can unlock new cohorts of peer reviewers and introduce more diversity into the pool of experts we ask to review, by better identifying expertise. Our Reviewer Finder tool reduces the time and effort involved in finding relevant reviewers by providing a finely-tuned list of possible reviewers based on the information entered by research authors about the manuscript. In addition, publishers are creating new tools that screen-out invalid papers and syphon these papers away, thereby reducing the burden on peer reviewers (as well as research editors) and enhancing integrity (The Next Step for the STM Integrity Hub).

Innovations like these have always been how research publishers navigate change while remaining allies for researchers, and advocates for quality in research. That is set to accelerate. Publishers will build on innovations like those above, will stretch what is possible, and will get inventive. For example, imagine how publishers might use a language model to invite and enable peer reviewers to review in their own language, and the impact of this on diversity and reviewer fatigue. What publishers will do will de-pressurise the system for researchers, and cool any overheating. The realities and possibilities are truly exciting.

Chris Graf is Research Integrity Director at Springer Nature