Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Being a good academic citizen

A lot of ink has been spilt about the pro’s and con’s of academic peer review. I am not going to add to the existing literature on this matter in this blogpost. Suffice it to say that I subscribe to the view that anonymous peer review is still the least deficient of the available mechanisms to determine the quality of a given article submission. As an editor of two international journals I am painfully aware of the fact that occasionally the quality of peer review is not as good as it should be. Usually enraged or not so enraged emails from authors give us editors an indication that one or another of the reviewers we invited to review a particular manuscript might not have been as diligent as would have been desirable.  In some of those cases we tend to embark on a second round of reviews. Either way, we depend on volunteers, also commonly known as good academic citizens, to review articles submitted to the journal. Our Editorial Board members have graciously agreed to review a minimum of four submitted articles for us in any given year, many review quite a few more submissions.

Without dependable reviewers Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics could not function and deliver high-quality outputs. One problem we encounter frequently is that it often is very difficult to find reviewers for submitted manuscripts. We know from conversation with fellow editors at other bioethics and medical ethics journals that we are not alone in this. The ‘very difficult’ refers to a number of different problems, the accumulated effects of which have a deleterious effect on our operations. For starters, too many academics are very happy to submit their manuscripts for review but they think little of returning the professional courtesy of their reviewers by responding positively to invitations to review manuscripts for the journal. As a result, some of those good academic citizens, who review diligently for us, get arguably overburdened with review requests, while those who prefer not to review content get a free ride. I wonder whether the Golden Rule might actually be more frequently written about by academic ethicists than it is actually followed by us. It is notable that junior academics tend to be more generous with their time while many (but by no means all) of the more established scholars are among the more frequent non-responders. The former also tend to provide longer, more in-depth and more constructive reviews. This, of course, is very much appreciated by authors keen to improve their papers prior to submitting their final draft for publication.

Other problems that typically delay – sometimes very significantly – decisions on submitted manuscripts have to do with invited reviewers not responding to our invitations, lagging significantly behind agreed-upon deadlines for the delivery of the reviews, not delivering promised reviews at all, but also producing reviews so devoid of critical substance that they are useless for all intent and purposes.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that many academic institutions encourage free-riders by not giving serious credits for undertaking per reviews for academic journals, funding agencies and the like. If annual performance reviews, or tenure reviews do not include credits for such work it is understandable why academics turn down such work. This is very unfortunate indeed.  As academics we should flag this issue within our institutions with a view toward establishing formal institutional recognition of demonstrable, quantifiable services to the academic community. 

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