Two heads are better than one: working with a co-reviewer

How enabling and recognizing co-reviewing can help share the load and widen referee pools

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What do you do when you receive an invitation to review a paper and your mind immediately turns to a colleague or team member who is well-experienced in this subject area?

Confidentiality vs. collaboration

The peer review policy of most academic journals is either single or double blind and according to COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) guidelines, reviewers should consider manuscripts as confidential material and seek the editor’s advice and permission if they wish to share a paper with another person. In practice, we know that “co-reviewing” is a recognized – and probably widespread – phenomenon. Indeed, there are platforms such as F1000 that are operating a fully transparent peer review model and encourage reviewers, upon invitation, and subsequently upon submission of their referee report, to collaborate with their colleagues in preparing the peer review report . Another example is eLife and its co-reviewer process for early career researchers.

Experimenting with co-reviewing

Here at Elsevier we started to experiment with a similar idea in 2017. Working with three journals  (Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine, Developmental Biology, and Robotics and Autonomous Systems), and in partnership with their editors, we added a few lines into the reviewer invitation letter:

"If you do not have the time to complete the review on your own, you are more than welcome to work with a colleague; however, we request that they be identified.  If you feel this colleague is sufficiently independent, we would also be happy to list them in the reviewer database and invite them via a separate invitation."
If you have any concerns about potential conflicts of interest, please consult the editor."

At the same time, we made a few adjustments to the submission system so that when reviewers were submitting their review reports they could provide the editor with further information about their co-reviewers.

The results are in!

Co-reviewing is an excellent way to mentor new reviewers

We reviewed the project after three months and the data we had accumulated showed that up to 10 percent (39 of 398 referees in this period) of reviewers indicated upon submission of their review reports that they had collaborated with a co-reviewer. What’s more, all the reviewers provided details of their collaboration to the respective handling editor.

We also surveyed the editors of participating journals to find out how they evaluated the experiment themselves. All of them were of the opinion that encouraging co-reviewers is a reliable way to expand a journal’s reviewer pool and a useful means to recognize the contribution of what would otherwise be invisible and voluntary work.

“I use co-reviewing to give my trainees experience writing a review. I read the paper independently, write my review, and then in discussion with the trainee, refine the final review for submission.” explained one of participating journal editors. “Co-reviewing is an excellent way to mentor new reviewers.... and also to make it more likely for senior reviewers to have them accept assignments.” noted another editor when asked about the impact of the pilot.

When it comes to the “quality” of the referee reports involved, no editor rated the quality of co-reviews poor or low, and more than half of the editors involved in the project signaled that they are considering inviting co-reviewers for future manuscripts. “It's sometimes hard to find reviewers and going to co-reviewers with similar expertise is very useful.” mentioned an editor of one of the participating journals.

Expanding the initiative

We feel that this has been a successful project and that it should be expanded. Enabling and formalizing a process which we recognize is already happening in many places only seems to make sense. Legitimizing the practice, moreover, allows us to give just recognition and reward to those involved.

Do you agree? Is co-reviewing something that is already happening in your area and therefore something that should be recognized, resourced and rewarded? Let us know via the comments form below… If you are a referee and would like to co-review a manuscript, please inform your editor and upon submission of your review, make sure you specify the contribution of your co-reviewer. Likewise, we would encourage journal editors to consider this possibility. If you are a journal editor and are interested in this initiative, please reach out to your publisher who can help you to implement co-reviewing on your journal.

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