A Closer Look at the Common Challenges in Peer Review

By eContent Pro on Dec 21, 2017
Common Challenges in Peer Review

Researchers will often spend years studying a hypothesis or a novel concept hoping to document groundbreaking findings and make an impact in their field of study. After arduous thinking, experimenting, collaborating, and writing, it’s just as tough—if not more so—to convince prospective publishers and editors that your work deserves to be disseminated.

What’s more, peer review, considered one of the biggest hurdles in the publication process, is critical to the development of any research paper. Only after a credible peer review process will your work be suitable for publication and looked upon as a worthy and citable resource. But, in many cases, book and journal editors are finding it increasingly difficult to attract qualified peer reviewers and establish a dedicated editorial review board.

Identifying Qualified Reviewers

Not only is it a struggle for editors to find reviewers willing to perform peer reviews for a book project or journal, but it is also difficult to find qualified researchers who can competently make criticisms. There will always be a pool of emerging scholars willing to have their names put on as many review boards as possible, but finding and selecting qualified professionals with specific knowledge in the scope of the publication is the real challenge that editors face in the ever-demanding reviewer recruitment process.

With the pressure from publishers to produce volumes quickly and within schedule, there are no excuses when it comes to lagging editorial development. The need for more timely reviewers is always prevailing. Typically, editors use a few different methods of recruitment. Most accessibly, colleagues at affiliated institutions and their extended networks are asked to contribute their time and expertise. Also, editors of more specialized publications frequently dive into the bibliographic lists of closely related books and journals in order to identify names of researchers who may be more qualified than others.

Lastly, when the search proves unrewarding, editors are almost always open to recommendations by colleagues, existing reviewers, and advisors. Trusted associates will usually be able to provide the names of trustworthy and capable reviewers, but caution must be practiced when receiving recommendations from contributing authors. If your publication doesn’t adhere to a double-blind review process, be careful because authors sometimes make recommendations solely to give the names of friends with the intent to trick the system.

The Waiting Game

At the core of many editor’s frustrations with peer review are the deadlines given to reviewers to complete manuscript evaluations, which are often not met with a timely response. Unfortunately, editors have to prepare themselves and make accommodations in waiting weeks after a deadline is given to peer reviewers. This is why the occasional loyal and punctual peer reviewer is so highly valued for academic publications.

Many times, selected reviewers are simply too busy teaching courses, authoring their own papers, supervising doctoral students, participating in committee functions, preparing for conferences, etc. When requests are denied because of their workload, the search for available or ad hoc reviewers continues. To make matters even more problematic, most publications require a minimum of two peer reviews before an editorial decision can be made. Therefore, more time is needed to ensure a full and proper peer review process is fulfilled.

Retainment

Another obstacle for editors is persuading reviewers to remain on their editorial review board. Busy researchers tend to put peer review duties towards the bottom of their priorities, and if their plate is already full, editors have to continue the search for dedicated people. It’s a constant mix of search efforts and motivation; editors continually search for qualified reviewers, while at the same time, attempting to keep existing reviewers motivated for future evaluations. Prominent and qualified researchers may be asked to perform reviews for more than 20 publications at any given time, so competition for their devoted time and expertise is extremely tight.

Author Frustration

While authors are usually told from the start approximately how long the peer review process will take, it may take even more time for them to ultimately receive feedback. Editors must play the role of mediator between the reviewers and the authors because both have very little time to spare; reviewers are busy, and authors have careers at stake. Although many publications could release a manuscript quickly, in order to have the chance of being published in a journal with a high impact factor, authors must wait for the proper peer review process to take place. The publication lag caused by a tricky and decelerating peer review process can seriously burden young scholars who need published materials in order to be considered for career or academic advancement.

Lackluster Reviews

In addition, sometimes reviewers fail to complete adequate reviews, which injects even more time into the process. Both editors and authors are hurt by this. There are two common types of poor reviews. First, peer reviewers sometimes fail to comprehend the aim and scope of the book or journal, and the editor realizes that their criticism is largely off-base. Second, reviewers will occasionally attempt to point out multiple flaws in a paper that are ostensibly trivial. These types of comments don’t offer much guidance for actual improvement, and so the editor must step in to 1) apologize for the ineffectual review and 2) find another reviewer.

Overcoming Challenges

On a more positive note, editors have found a few ways of surmounting these challenges.

  1. Proper Recognition: Editors can establish a procedure where reviewers who contributed to a particularly successful publication will receive some kind of recognition—whether that’s a certificate of acknowledgement or listing their name on a website. Perhaps even making it standard practice to list the reviewer’s name with the published manuscript will incentivize more reviewers to participate.
  2. Shorter and More Transparent Deadlines: It may be a simple solution, but it has promise. Editors can consider pairing down the turnaround times for manuscript evaluations. Since many reviewers surpass their deadlines, maybe making them tighter will create shorter review timeframes. Moreover, adding a level of accountability won’t hurt. Some editors actually post a public list of on-time reviews as well as those who missed deadlines.
  3. Payment: For journal editors who oversee a board of reviewers, payment might be an option if the funding is available. Most scholars would agree that performing reviews is a valued service that deserves some reward.
  4. Better Initial Assessment: This is overlooked many times, but putting more time and effort into sifting out sloppy, unsatisfactory, or irrelevant papers during the initial assessment period will lessen the workload during the review process.
  5. Clear Guidelines: Editors should regularly be appraising the guidelines and feedback forms utilized by their peer reviewers. Cutting out unnecessary requirements and keeping the process as simple and pertinent as possible will encourage more reviewers to stay on board and submit timely evaluations.

Moving Forward

Despite all of these difficulties, peer review will always be an important and decisive part of the publishing process. Academics don’t want to see a degradation in research integrity, and editors will continue to do their best to face the ongoing struggles with peer review. Here’s one final word of advice for authors: learn to value the peer review process, even if it may take longer than expected.

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