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Innovation in peer review: introducing “volunpeers”

January 9, 2018

By Christopher Tancock

Innovation in peer review: introducing “volunpeers”

Pilot project on Journal of Molecular Biology demonstrates high engagement and satisfaction from editors and reviewers

When it comes to finding reviewers for the next article, we know that editors often face an uphill struggle. And the same sometimes goes for reviewers who are keen to use their knowledge of a community but have no way of getting noticed. At the same time, those reviewers who are invited sometimes decline due to lack of familiarity with the subject matter, too many prior commitments or occasionally because they don’t know the journal well enough. These are familiar challenges but one title has been exploring a novel way of overcoming them – and raising editor and reviewer satisfaction in the process!

Introducing Volunpeers

The Reviewer Recognition Platformopens in new tab/window has enabled reviewers to volunteer their services for particular journals since September 2015. This enables less established researchers to deploy their valuable knowledge on a journal where their familiarity with the subject matter and recommendations can have the most impact. Like a number of its fellow Elsevier journals, the Journal of Molecular Biologyopens in new tab/window (JMB) duly set up a module on the journal homepage which enables would-be reviewers to register via a simple form and record their areas of expertise. So far not a ground-breaking evolution but it is the next step in the process that has delivered remarkable results in just a few months.

After they have registered on JMB’s homepage, reviewers, or “Volunpeers” are alerted to new manuscripts matching their expertise (and only when this is the case). If they see something they like, the Volunpeers can respond to “book” the article for their review. This is done on a first-come-first-served basis. Once a Volunpeer has come forward, the handling editor sends them the manuscript and instructions and awaits the review. Once a decision has been made on the paper in question, the editor provides concise and personalized feedback to the Volunpeer using Review Quality Instrumentopens in new tab/window methodology and the Volunpeer is similarly invited to give feedback on the process from their perspective.

Some impressive results

The results for JMB are arresting. In just 12 months, the number of reviewers registering via the journal’s homepage has increased by over 700%. Volunpeers are registering from around the globe, but the majority stem from the US. 20 editors who requested urgent assistance to secure additional reviewers have participated in the pilot and almost 40 Volunpeers have produced referee reports for over 20 manuscripts since the start of the year. What’s more, the reports are being delivered significantly faster than “standard” reviews and are being rated higher than average by the handling editors. The below table summarizes the performance of the pilot to date:

  • 60% reply rate to initial notification

  • 7.7 days in average to submit review

  • 4.2/5 editor satisfaction

  • 5/5 reviewer satisfaction

Positive feedback from all sides

In terms of the feedback received, the reception has been very positive on both sides of the operation as the quotes below attest:

"This was the first time that I got a detailed review/feedback on my review. It’s really helpful, and I think more journals should do this. Encourages a better review process, and also encouraged me that my efforts to improve the manuscript were appreciated by the authors/editors" - Volunpeer "I really enjoyed participating in this review process. As a young investigator I appreciate opportunities to improve upon my reviewing skills. I hope to participate in more of these reviews in the future” - Volunpeer “The review was far more comprehensive and helpful, both to the editor and to the authors, than the usual reports.” - Handling editor “The review was excellent, critical but constructive and written with authority” - Handling editor

The project has seen success in a number of areas, from increased interest to review (Volunpeers are only alerted to papers matching their areas of interest/expertise), lower chance of declines (Volunpeers have themselves chosen to review for the journal rather than being invited by the editor); quality preservation and decreased time to review (as demonstrated by average turnaround times and satisfaction ratings) and greater transparency (editors mentor Volunpeers in the process and they benefit from feedback on their reports).

Looking ahead

The pilot has been a clear success but naturally there are elements that we wish to improve, for example we are currently working on automating the manuscript background match with reviewer profiles. Likewise, some elements of the operation still involve manual workarounds and obviously there is an additional step for the editors involved in providing feedback for the Volunpeers. Nonetheless, given the positive reception of the pilot; we are looking forward to expanding and adapting this concept in order to offer this functionality for new journals and communities, to help them with their specific needs. Keep an eye on the Reviewer Recognition Platformopens in new tab/window and your favourite journal homepages for chances to become a Volunpeer yourself! If you are an editor yourself and interested in piloting this approach for your journal, touch base with your publisher.