Liz Wager: If comment is cheap why is peer review so expensive?

Liz WagerAs you know (since you are reading this), I blog, albeit sporadically. I do not Tweet (yet) but I’m fascinated by the frenzy of twittering and the explosion of opportunities to launch one’s opinions into cyberspace.

The BMJ offers Doc2Doc, which, along with similar sites, bubbles with medical comment and chat. Not being a Doc, I haven’t joined this particular conversation, but was interested to hear, at a BMJ Editors meeting, that Doc2Doc users were discussing abstracts from a meeting. Yet at a different meeting, I had heard editors from another journal bemoaning the fact that they have to send out 8 requests to get one review. That lead me to wonder why it is apparently so easy to get people (even busy people like doctors) to chat, but so hard to persuade them to peer review.

Some of the reasons are obvious. A tweet takes seconds, but a good review can take several hours. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, but constructive reviews are often several pages. But I wonder if there are other features of e-chat that editors could learn from? One is rapid response. Twittering feels like a real conversation because people reply. Yet peer review feels like talking to yourself. Even with open (ie signed) review, journals discourage authors and reviewers from getting in touch. Some journals let you see the other reviewers’ comments, but usually several weeks or months later. Reviewers sometimes see the authors’ response but this usually feels as if it were snarled through gritted teeth and any expressions of thanks to the reviewer usually seem formulaic and flattering. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a real dialogue? If reviewers had to meet authors face-to-face, or even across a video link, perhaps both sides would be more polite and more constructive.

Some journals encourage post-publication comment and annotation. But so far, readers don’t seem to be bothered and the quality of comments has been low. Bold experiments with ‘open’ (ie web-based) review (eg at the Medical Journal of Australia and, more recently, Nature) have flopped. This is disappointing, because such democratic critique sounds like a wonderful alternative or addition to conventional peer review. I’m convinced that one day, some clever editor will discover a neat way of harnessing the electronic twittering so that it contributes to the selection and refinement of articles. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.