Vijayaprasad Gopichandran: Peer review from an author, reviewer, and editor’s perspective

I write this as someone who just recovered from a battle that lasted 2 years in an attempt to publish the findings of one of my research papers. Four journals and 10 sets of peer reviews later, a paper which was initially deemed unfit to publish has been accepted by a reputed, indexed, high impact journal. I want to share my experience of the peer review process from three different perspectives, as an author, a reviewer and an editor of two journals.

Peer review from the perspective of an author:

When I entered academia and started writing scientific papers for publication, I was taught by my mentors that peer review is sacrosanct for ensuring the validity of scientific publications. I learnt to revere peer reviewers, listen to everything they said carefully, and satisfy them by all means while responding to their comments. I hadn’t become a reviewer yet. I still remember the first set of comments that I received from reviewers for an article I had submitted to a national journal. I printed out the comments, sat with my mentor and discussed how to respond to the comments. My mentor told me never to get defensive. He advised me to read carefully and respond. He told me, “…as far as possible carry out all the changes that they are suggesting”. Only if it sounded very much out of line, was I allowed to give a very politely worded justification. I even remember chanting my prayers before hitting the “send” button on my reply to reviewer comments email. When the paper got accepted for publication, it reinforced the belief in me that peer reviewer is the Almighty in academic publications. If I appease all his/her commands and be polite, then my paper will be accepted! Even recently, after almost eight years and 30 odd peer reviewed publications, the respect and reverence for a peer reviewer remains in my mind. As an author I learnt to respect peer reviewers, trust that they are experts in the field and know more than I do and consider their opinions as important value additions to my research.

Peer review from the perspective of a reviewer:

After almost two years of being a published author, I started getting papers to review. Initially they came from national journals and then from some big names in the publishing business. The first peer review was a nerve racking experience. I remember it was a food security paper. I was no expert in food security but had just published a paper on food security a few months previously from an internship research project. The first paper I read as a reviewer seemed perfect. I read it several times, but could not find a single mistake. But my experience as a recipient of peer reviews told me that peer reviewers are important people and have to make critical comments about the paper. I ran to my mentor and we both sat together and reviewed the paper. I learnt the importance of nit picking. “Look at the finest points and give it a fresh thought. Ask the authors to give a different perspective to some facts that they claim in the paper.” This was sincere advice I received from my mentor. I learnt that I do not have to be an expert in a subject to be a peer reviewer. I just need to know the art of catching some small weaknesses and blowing them up, try to redo the paper in my own style, and ask the authors why they haven’t written it the way I look at it and if there are glaring errors to point them out. Meanwhile I also started writing more and publishing actively. I was simultaneously juggling the role of reviewer and author. This helped me understand the gravity of the peer review process and I started reading more and spending a lot of time with each paper I was asked to review. I saw myself discerning important conceptual issues in papers with time. However, I also realized that peer reviewing was a thankless job that ate too much into my time. The only thing that kept me motivated to contribute sincerely to the process of peer review was the thought that somebody else was giving me their time to review my papers and I need to repay it.

Peer review from the perspective of an editor:

Then one day I became an editor; first for a national journal and then an international journal. I receive articles from authors, read them, and assess whether they are fit for peer review. When I deem a particular article fit, I set into the arduous task of looking for experts in the field. After perusing several lists and identifying a few experts for a particular paper, I send out invitation letters to request them for a review. In my experience, 60% of reviewers that I have invited for the 30 articles that I have handled so far, have declined the invitation. Usually the busy people reject requests for peer review from lower impact journals. I end up with inexperienced reviewers. After a nervous wait of 2-3 weeks, I get their reviews. It is extremely rare to get a thorough review of an article with attention to concepts, analyses, and scientific validity of the research. Most reviews are superficial, sometimes just one liners like “there are several grammatical mistakes. Otherwise fit for publication.”

A panoramic view from three angles:

I have seen this process of peer review from three angles. From all angles it doesn’t appear to be the best way of ensuring scientific rigor of published literature. As an author, I have always believed that the peer reviewer is the best in the field and he/she has to be appeased. This severely suppressed my critical cognitive faculties. As a reviewer, I know that doing a good peer review is a big challenge and needs tremendous commitment. I question how many people will prioritize peer review over the other competing priorities in their lives. As an editor I have realized that the vast majority of peer reviews are of questionable quality. Do we need to rethink the process of peer review for scientific publications?

Richard Smith, previous editor of The BMJ writes, “We conducted an experiment on the peer review process. Eight errors were introduced into a 600-word paper that was sent out to 300 reviewers. No one found more than five [errors]; the median was two and 20 per cent didn’t spot any.” If this was the status of a reputed journal, the fate of the smaller journals can be imagined. Recent initiatives like Publon, which aims to give incentives to peer reviewers and create a portfolio of all high quality reviews of conscientious reviewers, may improve the process of peer review. However is there a need to rethink the entire process of making research valid? Peer review has been the sine qua non of validity for a long time. Should it continue? Or should we think of alternative options?

Vijayaprasad Gopichandran is a PhD researcher working on trust in doctor patient relationships at the School of Public Health, SRM University, Kattankulathur, Kancheepuram District, India. He also practises primary care medicine in a rural area in Tamil Nadu, India.

Competing interests: I declare that I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and I hereby declare that I am supported by the INSPIRE Fellowship of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.