Peer review: A publisher’s perspective- part 2

In celebration of Peer Review Week 2017, we’ve asked representatives from across SAGE’s global offices to share their thoughts on peer review. Their responses varied from its value, the ethics and challenges, to its future. Second is Tessa Pickett, Executive Director, STM Journals from the SAGE London office who shares her thoughts on what we can be doing as a community to overcome some of the inherent challenges of peer review.

Of Oldenburg’s four functions of the journal – registration, dissemination, certification (ensuring quality assurance through peer review) and archival record – peer review is widely accepted as being a fundamental component, and the linchpin of the scientific publication process across reputable journals. As others have said, it is probably the most important defining characteristic of modern academic journal publishing.

However, peer review is not without its challenges and at SAGE we are dedicated to working in partnership with the academic community to address the key issues, taking a forward-looking approach as we explore new ways of both supporting and improving the academic publication system. But what are these key challenges and what more can we be doing as a community to overcome them?

  1. Finding and maintaining good quality reviewers

Editors can find identifying expert reviewers with relevant subject knowledge challenging, and ensuring that they do not ‘over-ask’ for the support of a few key engaged individuals is very important. Sustaining a reviewer pool that is broad in terms of discipline knowledge, gender and diversity, and geographic demographics is another element for consideration.  Editors own networks can be instrumental here, but there are also an increasing number of excellent tools and services that can help.

  1. Changing peer review practices

Whilst peer review itself has been a well-established concept for hundreds of years, there are many different practices, not limited to single, or double-blind peer review. Newer initiatives including open peer review, portable, cascade, peer review consortia, results-free, pre-print commenting and post-publication and pre-submission peer review are bringing yet more diversity to the process and represent exciting new developments. A key factor here is that transparency is of the utmost importance – all key players should expect to know exactly how their contribution will be handled, and precisely what is confidential, and what may be open.  Whatever the process, it needs to be transparent and robust in its own terms.

  1. Time

Reviewing a manuscript can involve a very significant time commitment. The median time to review a paper has been estimated to be five hours, which equates to tens of millions of hours spent per year across the journals landscape.  At SAGE alone, across just our journals, over 250,000 reviews were compiled last year. Reviewers report that they take their role and responsibility to the community very seriously and that they genuinely value the opportunity to give others the benefit of their experience.  They also feedback that they find it a very useful personal learning experience, and feel motivated by playing a role as an active participant in their research community.  This is a testament to the extraordinary collaborative spirit of the scientific endeavour, and it’s important to support, value, recognise and reward this amazing contribution to scholarly research output.

  1. Reviewer recognition and training

This brings me onto my 4th challenge: reviewer recognition. Reviewers work is often recognised by acknowledgements in individual journals, and many journals also have annual Reviewer Awards for top reviewers. But ultimately, recognition for individual reviewers is probably an even more important factor for their careers and reputations. SAGE has partnered with Publons, an organisation dedicated to speeding up research by harnessing the power of peer review, to create a route for reviewer recognition that is global and accessible to all. This is an incredibly powerful path in terms of addressing this challenge, ensuring that the time and effort that reviewers put into the process is formally recorded and acknowledged. We are very keen to support accreditation for the valuable work that peer reviewers do, and that benefits science and the research communities we serve.

A related issue is the lack of systematic training for reviewers, especially recognised by early careers researchers.  Whilst publishers, societies and editors provide a rich abundance of guidance documents, videos and training materials relevant to their disciplines, the Publons Academy is a new and exciting initiative that has the potential to provide more universal education.

  1. Peer review malpractice

Peer review has its imperfections. There can be bias, conflicts of interest, undetected plagiarism, as well as simple human error.  There can also be more insidious problems, such as peer review fraud, an issue that has affected many journals and many publishers across the industry over the last few years.  The academic environment in which authors are judged on and rewarded for their publication output, have the potential to create distorting influences, and peer review systems, having been built on trust, can occasionally be tricked.  It behoves publishers, editors and the research community to work on better education, communications and expectations, better systems and processes to ensure that the fundamentally positive role of peer review is supported to best effect.

At SAGE, we are committed to ensuring that we adhere to the highest standards of peer review and publication ethics across the board.  We have built resources to support our authors, editors and reviewers across our platforms, (see our Reviewer Gateway for more information), supported our journals with access to key resources which are available as COPE members, and in many of our journals provide a rich and diverse set of educational tools and resources pertinent to their communities. In addition, we have a global Ethics & Quality committee at SAGE to help put in place mechanisms to ensure we remain innovative in supporting peer review in the broadest sense – in terms of process, recognition, ethics, communication, education, integrity and transparency.

Keep your eyes peeled for part three in the series and remain up to date with all our activities by booking marking this page.

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