The process of peer review is widely recognised as the key element of quality control in academic publishing and the scientific community more generally. Peer review is the critical appraisal of one’s work by fellow scholars, who read and comment on your manuscript and offered a verdict on its quality, rigour, originality, style, completeness, etc. etc.
Peer reviewers are typically experts in your field, if not your topic, or who have expertise in the methods you applied or the population or are you studied. They are also academics often with busy day jobs, who act as unpaid peer reviewers, and as journal editors for that matter. Peer reviewers are with full-time jobs who give up their free time to review for academic journals. A recent article by Aczel and colleagues (2021) reported that reviewers across the globe spent over 100 million hours on peer reviewing for free in 2020, the estimated value of this equated to nearly £300 million in the UK alone. This quantifies in some of my feelings I wrote about a decade ago now in a BU Research Blog with the title ‘Peer review and bust academics’.
However, with the ever-growing number of health and social science journals the requests for reviewing seem to grow relentlessly. This month alone (November 2021) I received twenty or 21 requests to review. I have reviewed three manuscripts for Birth, Nepal Journal of Epidemiology, and The Journal of International Development, but I had to reject or ignore many more (see Table 1). I usually do my reviews over the weekend. One weekend this month I could not review because I had to prepare materials for the external auditor who came to visit Bournemouth University for a project recently completed, and this weekend I could not find the time because I’m proof-reading two PhD chapters (and writing this blog).
I leave you with some food for thought: academics spent time applying for research funding, then apply for the ethical approval, do the research, we write up the findings, and write blogs about the process!
Prof. Edwin van Teijlingen
Centre for Midwifery, Maternal & Perinatal Health (CMMPH)
Aczel, B., Szaszi, B., Holcombe, A.O. (2021) A billion-dollar donation: estimating the cost of researchers’ time spent on peer review. Res Integr Peer Rev 6, 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-021-00118-2.
Academia has become more demanding than twenty years ago, particularly, the job outwith university. Just this morning I received three requests to review a paper. Each from a very reputable journal and a each a legitimate requests, i.e. I asking me to assess a paper in a my academic field.
Reviewing papers and grant applications is, of course, part of my academic responsibilities, and hence part of my scholarly practice. But I am already reviewing five NIHR (National Institute for Health Research) grant applications this weekend, as well as an other paper for BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, and there are two PhD theses next my bed which I need to exam. On top of this I have been ignoring several reminder invitations to review a research proposal for the Croatian Science Foundation, as I simply do not have time to do so, however, much I would like to do so.
The forthcoming REF 2021 is not helping. UK academics are frantically submitting their manuscripts to academic journals to have them in print before the end of 2020, to beat the REF 2021 deadline. The flip-side of this reviewing coin is that my collaborators and I have had three papers turned down in the past year by a reputable journal as it could not find appropriate reviewers. Three articles on three very different aspects of our work, one a UK-based study, one a European study and one a study based in Nepal. For two of these manuscripts the journal took nearly a year to come back to us, wasting the chance to submit the paper elsewhere.
Perhaps it is due the rose-tinted spectacles of looking at the past, perhaps is it simply my level of seniority (compared to twenty years ago) but I don’t think so. The underlying trend is that the volume of papers submitted to journals is growing faster than the number of academics volunteering to review. This blog is, therefor, also a call for my academic colleagues to step up and agree to review on (extra) paper. Interestingly, I made a not dissimilar call in a BU Research Blog eight years ago! Unfortunately, the overall situation has not improved.
I haven’t even mentioned the exponential growth in email requests to academics submit papers to so-called predatory journals! I counted 15 requests in the past two days alone and it is only 10 AM on Saturday morning so more to follow later today.
Prof. Edwin van Teijlingen
Once you have submitted you manuscript to a scientific journal, the editor has a (quick) look at it and sends it out for review. As I remind students and colleagues in training sessions on academic writing and publishing, the editor and the peer reviewers are academics like me and my colleagues who do both the editing and the reviewing, for free and over and above the day job. Being an editor and a reviewer are part of being any academic’s so-called scholarly activity. We are expected to do this as part of the wider scientific community for the benefit of our academic discipline(s).
When an academic receives an invitation to peer review, the journal will send you a copy of the paper’s abstract. On reading this abstract you then decide whether you wish to do the review. If the paper sounds interesting and it is in your field and you have the time you may volunteer to conduct a review. Once you have agreed you will get the full paper (or more likely you are send a link to the publisher’s website). The requirements of the review report varies between disciplines and often between journals. Some follow an informal structure, but others have a more formal approach, sometimes with scoring systems for sections of the paper.
Unfortunately, academics across the globe are experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of invitations to review for scientific journals. And I am not talking about so-called predatory publishers, i.e. journals and publishers that are only in it for the monetary gain, no I am talking about legitimate journals sending out invitations to review for them. Especially scholars with a few decent publications receive several emails a week from often high quality scientific journals. The photo of my email inbox shows three invitations in a row I received in the space of two hours last week (10th July), two are even from different Associate Editors for the same journal!
I would like to stress that doing peer reviews is very important. It is the backbone of academic publishing. Reviewing is part of our overall scholarly responsibility so we all do it, although some more than others. We all have are favourite journals to review for, perhaps because the journal is high quality, or we like to publish in it ourselves, because we know the editor, or our reviewing is recognised on websites like KUDOS. I would like to urge colleagues who don’t manage to review at least once a month to step up and agree to review a wee bit more often.
Prof. Edwin van Teijlingen
Centre for Midwifery, Maternal & Perinatal Health