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Academics back peer review but want improvements

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The peer review process is supported by the majority of researchers, according to a new report, writes Sian Harris

Peer review received almost universal backing in a recent international survey of 3,040 academics. The study, carried out by Mark Ware Consulting on behalf of the Publishing Research Consortium, found that 93 per cent of academics surveyed disagreed with the suggestion that peer review is unnecessary. Of these, 85 per cent agreed that peer review greatly helps scientific communication and 83 per cent believed that without peer review there would be no control.

The peer review process subjects an author’s manuscript to scrutiny by experts in the particular field prior to publication. The survey found that 90 per cent of researchers see peer review’s main area of effectiveness as improving the quality of the published paper. A similar percentage said it had improved their own last published paper, including identifying scientific errors and missing and inaccurate references.

Despite this backing, the survey did uncover some criticism about the way that peer review is currently done. It revealed that some reviewers are overloaded – 79 per cent of reviews are done by just 44 per cent of the reviewers and they do an average of 14 reviews per year, compared to their preferred maximum of 13 per year. In addition, 38 per cent of respondents thought that peer review times were too long. Authors reported that the peer review process took an average of 80 days, with the longest times in humanities and social sciences.

The methods of peer review were also scrutinised. The most widely-used method today is single-blind review, where reviewers know who the authors are but authors are not aware of who reviewed their paper. Although 25 per cent of those surveyed preferred this approach, it has been criticised for enabling reviewers to exercise bias and to hide behind the screen of secrecy. Of the survey respondents, 56 per cent favoured double-blind review, where the identities are hidden from both reviewers and authors.

Less popular (13 per cent) was the newer alternative of open review, where identities are known on both sides. Proponents of this approach believe that reviewers will produce better work and avoid rude or careless comments if their identity is known. However, this approach does face challenges: 47 per cent of reviewers in the survey claimed they would be discouraged from reviewing if their name was disclosed to the author.

A fourth approach, postpublication review, was the favourite method for just 5 per cent of respondents but many more saw it as a useful supplement to other methods of peer review. The study also looked at what guidance is given to reviewers. It revealed that 30 per cent of editors did not provide reviewers with a checklist and that only 28 per cent of editors in the survey said that they gave feedback to reviewers on the quality of their reports.

Playing your part

Even with the drawbacks and on-going debate about how to improve things, however, academics are still keen to participate in peer review. And ‘playing your part as a member of the academic community’ was a far more popular reason for doing so than more self-interested reasons such as ‘to enhance your reputation or further your career’ or ‘to increase the chance of being offered a role in the journal’s editorial team’.

What’s more, only 35 per cent of respondents believe that reviewers should be paid. In contrast, 40 per cent believe that they shouldn’t be paid and 52 per cent think that paying for reviewers would make the cost of publishing too expensive.