Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On peer review

The debates among journal editors and other academics about the merits or otherwise of particular forms of peer review continue. A growing number of academics in the STEM subjects seem to think that post-publication peer review provides for higher quality control than the traditional post-submission pre-publication review. Their logic is that mistakes in manuscripts are less likely to be found during a process involving only a handful of reviewers. They furthermore argue that post-publication peer review will submit journal articles to scrutiny by a much larger number of readers. Methodological, statistical and other mistakes would almost certainly be found out in post-publication scrutiny with a higher likelihood simply due to the much larger number of expert reviewing (ie reading, analysing and commenting on) manuscripts post publication. It is difficult to argue with this contention, except to note that post publication peer review sites today suggest that only some of the manuscripts there receive such desirable academic community review. What does this proposal mean then for papers that are ignored altogether by peers. Will they still count as some kind of peer reviewed publications or are they just blog-equivalents? Who counts as a reviewer? Would the authors’ best friends be viable options? University administrators and appointments committees will want to know.

Of course, traditional peer review doesn’t preclude post-publication review. It happens that manuscripts that passed pre-publication review are eventually found to be seriously methodologically flawed. Many of those are withdrawn, but reluctant publishers and editors have also gained notoriety by leaving flawed manuscripts in the public domain without errata. Post-publication review depends to some extent on easy access to the manuscripts in question (Open Access being a bonus here), as well as the existence of sophisticated web-based moderated platforms permitting reader-peers to leave comments. It goes without saying that relentlessly profit-driven publishers of academic journals will be reluctant to invest in the staff necessary to manage this process.

I think, for humanities manuscripts, for the time being, pre-publication anonymous peer review remains the way to go. Anonymous peer review guarantees honest reviews from reviewers. Open review, whereby the reviewers and authors are disclosed to each other, will often prevent honest reviews, simply because reviewers inclined to be critical of a particular submission will be reluctant to burn their bridges by speaking frankly to the quality of a particular submission submitted by a close colleague or friend. Anonymous reviews are not in their own right a guarantee of quality. That’s where journal editors step in. They need to evaluate reviewers’ comments and decide what to do if reviewers’ verdicts vary significantly. You might be surprised to learn that this does not happen all that frequently. Reviewers almost always reach similar verdicts.

The challenge today is, of course, to find knowledgeable reviewers. I have lamented this problem here before. Senior colleagues are often reluctant to undertake this vital work. In fact, a few of them refuse to undertake reviews outright. That does not stop them from complaining bitterly if their manuscripts are, in their view, in the review process for an extraordinary amount of time. Perhaps we ought to institute a policy whereby as editors we would be well within our right to refuse to evaluate submissions from colleagues routinely unwilling to accept review requests.

Another issue arises when it comes to sourcing true peers to review particular content. Having now been an Editor of this journal and its companion journal for the last 15 years, I still struggle on occasion to find a suitable competent reviewer for a particular manuscript. It takes time, especially if the subject matter of a particular manuscript is highly specialised, to find the right peer reviewer. At this journal as well as its companion journal our standard operating procedure is that we as Editors have to find appropriate reviewers. We ask authors only in the rarest of exceptions to suggest possible reviewers to us. It turns out that choosing our own reviewers is a good idea, more so than we thought it is. Journals who ask authors for reviewer suggestions have been hit in fairly significant numbers by fake reviews, written under pseudonym by submitting authors, or by commercial outfits in the business of drafting fake reviews.[i] Post publication peer review publications should take note. You never stop learning when it comes to these matters, and sadly, nothing much surprises me any longer. The public or perish culture in today’s universities has clearly led to unreasonably pressures on academics, leading quite a few of us to stray from the right path.

Courtesy of the rise of open access on-line ‘journals’ we have reason to be weary of claims that the papers published in many such venues have been peer reviewed. As I write this, several incidents were reported where bogus papers have been accepted for publication by such outlets, for a processing fee, of course, delivered to the ‘editor’ via PayPal. Bound to be a classic is undoubtedly this one: The authors conjured up a fake paper with the title ‘Get me off your fucking mailing list’, directed at a SPAM Open Access outlet inviting contributions. Their paper was accepted, ostensibly after peer review.[ii] As any academic with a university affiliation will be able to testify to these days, the same outfits don’t discriminate as editors of more discerning journals would, in terms of competence to review particular academic outputs. A journalist employed at an Ottawa based newspaper reports that his submission of a fake article to a dodgy Open Access outfit ended up with him being now inundated with requests to review manuscripts he is utterly unqualified to review for said ‘publisher’.[iii] It is fair to say that on the odd occasion every editor will call on the wrong reviewer for a particular submission, but that is usually caught by the second or third reviewer, usually the invited reviewer declines. Apparently many pay-for-play Open Access publishing operations are primarily concerned about extracting author processing fees out of the submitting authors. That they can only achieve after they accept submitted content.

An issue remains apparently the Conflict of Interest declaration. There are all sorts of standards deployed by all sorts of publishing outfits, grant giving bodies and so on. Let me just say that I think reviewers would be well advised to err on the side of caution when they declare conflicts of interest. One good yardstick would be to ask yourself whether, if you were at the receiving end of your review, you would want to be advised (as an editor) of particular information that you are considering disclosing. Conflicts of interest could include knowledge of the authors’ identity, financial conflicts, but also that you might be an author harshly criticised or praised in the manuscript that you are reviewing. None of this would disqualify you per se from reviewing, but knowing about these potential conflicts would help editors to assess your comments more competently.
It is pretty obvious to anyone who has been in the business of publishing as an author or editor – or both – that anonymous peer review is far from perfect, and it is conceivable that new publishing platforms will eventually lead to the rise of better peer review processes. I for one am looking forward to those.

[i] Ferguson, C. 2014. It’s happened again: Journal cannot rule out possibility that author did his own peer review. Retraction Watch November 10. http://retractionwatch.com/2014/11/10/it-happened-again-journal-cannot-rule-out-possibility-author-did-his-own-peer-review/ [accessed November 25, 2014]

[ii] Bealls, J. 2014. Bogus Journal Accepts Profanity-Laced Anti-Spam Paper Scholarly Open Access November 20. http://scholarlyoa.com/2014/11/20/bogus-journal-accepts-profanity-laced-anti-spam-paper/ [accessed November 25, 2014]

[iii] Spears, Tom. 2014. How my fake science paper earned me a shot at an editor's job.  Ottawa Citizen. November 25. http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/ok-no-problem-fakery-is-fine-at-bottom-feeding-journal [accessed November 25, 2014]

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