Who are the peers in peer-review? A call to redefine

 

Eighteen months, six leading journals and one published article later. This is the headline of the harrowing experience my colleagues and I recently survived. From all indication, this is not as harrowing as it gets. Just six journals! Some, I have since learnt have had to power through more. In other words, our experience is not unique and as such challenging this nightmare warrants a collective open discussion

The modern-day peer-review process was introduced in 1731 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Scholarly material sent to the Society were reviewed by those considered as “subject matter experts” and who were in a position to “help the editor” to arrive at a decision to accept or reject the material. While it took time for several journals to come on board this process, by the 20th century, this process had become the “gold-standard” in evaluation of scholarly work and so it remains today. While it is important to establish this history, this post is less about the process and more about the people behind what is now popularly called peer-reviewing.

Who is a peer? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a peer is “one that is of equal standing with another, especially: one belonging to the same societal group especially based on age, grade, or status”. In sociology peers are defined (or identified) by the similar interests they share. Putting these definitions in the context of the academic mandate to publish or perish, I pose this question “Who are the peers in peer-review?”

It is no question that reviewers should be subject-matter experts. For our paper, ‘Journal X’ assigned two reviewers, a physicist and a geriatrician, for our paper on the cost of maternal health services. We struggled with their comments. However, beyond subject-matter or what could be referred to as content expertise, I argue that peer-reviewers should also have context expertise. By this, I mean why would a subject-matter expert who has not done any work on or in Africa be the reviewer for a paper on Africa? Beyond geographical setting, there are other context-specific issues including race, ethnicity, culture, and gender that may not be akin to the reviewer’s context expertise, yet relevant for the understanding and interpretation of the submitted manuscript. This by no means suggests that only experts from the same context can review studies published on that context; rather, reviewers also need to demonstrate understanding and appreciation of the nuanced forces at play in such contexts to qualify as peers.

Of the five rejections that we received, four were editorial rejections! It makes sense for editors to check for fit of the manuscript for the journal audience. However, if an article is within scope, why do editors not just leave peer-reviewing to actual peers? In the pre 18th century era, when only editors made the decision on quality, one of the concerns raised with this approach was its subjectivity. This practice by editors inadvertently takes us back to that realm, despite the undeniable reality that after peers have reviewed, the final judgement call still lies at the editors’ desk.

In my opinion, peer-reviewing is probably the most important assignment that any scholar can be given – to accept or reject knowledge! A point of consensus amongst many scholars, however, is that the peer review process is not perfect. Its imperfection is only further exaggerated when it is not optimally leveraged to maximise its potential. Indeed, researchers working hard to disseminate their research output, sometimes have to endure career-defining consequences of peer-review decisions. This includes loss of self-confidence, anxiety and other mental health issues that may have lasting impact on their livelihood. These consequences can be more aggravating for early-career researchers, who are on a learning journey themselves and require recognition for their contributions to knowledge.

Moving forward, we need to think more broadly about who makes an appropriate peer reviewer. In the current academic landscape, I submit that an ideal peer reviewer should have content and context expertise and be of equal scholarly status with the author that made the most significant contribution to the manuscript.The manuscript that inspired this blog post was eventually accepted in another elite journal following peer-review who matched the above definition. Needless to say, their comments and feedback contributed to improving the paper!

Furthermore, I suggest that to get even more out of peer-reviewers, wherein anonymous review peer-reviewers come together in an online consultation to discuss their thoughts and come to a consensus on their joint feedback to the authors. This could reduce subjective bias and address expertise gaps in the reviewer panel. Many universities also use this approach to provide feedback to postgraduate students on written essays.  After all, is that not what peer-review should be about?

About the author

Aduragbemi Banke-Thomas is currently an AXA Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Competing Interest: None declared

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