Peer Review and the Role of the Editor
"New and different approaches are necessary to cultivate and maintain a solid base of reviewers"
By Frank H Arthur Posted on 7 March 2012
I have been a Regional Editor of the Journal of Stored Products Research since November of 2006, and continue to serve as a reviewer for other scientific journals. Editors today are being confronted with a number of challenges to the peer review process, including obtaining the peer reviews necessary to evaluate scientific studies for journal publication. New and different approaches are necessary to cultivate and maintain a solid base of reviewers.
First, editors must become more active in pre-screening manuscripts before they are sent out for review. As a reviewer, I regularly receive manuscripts that are severely deficient in English grammar and construction, along with the stated or implicit assumption that it is also my responsibility to re-write these manuscripts in addition to evaluating the scientific content. This expectation places an unfair burden on reviewers and editors, who are usually serving on a volunteer basis. Related issues include being sent manuscripts that are obviously lacking in scientific quality for that journal, out of scope, or in a completely different format from what is specified. Receiving these types of manuscripts increases frustration on the part of reviewers, and editors can, and should, simply return those manuscripts to the authors and let them address the deficiencies. The authors are ultimately responsible for the quality of the manuscript.
Second, editors should focus on obtaining reviews from scientists who are actively publishing in their journal. Every month I receive several automatic ‘invitation to review” emails from journals where I have not published in the past, nor am I likely to do so in the future, including various new online journals. Many scientists will decline those invitations unless there is overwhelming interest in the topic of the paper. I also receive numerous requests for reviews from journals where I have published only sporadically as a submitting or lead author, and often not at all for the past several years. Regular contributors have a more vested interest in the journal but, at the same time, editors must not continually ask the same people to review because “they cannot find anyone else”. Efforts must be made to broaden the review base and increase participation in the review process.
Third, assuming reviews are being solicited from regular contributors to a journal, editors should first make personal contact with reviewers instead of just generating an “invitation to review” email. However, if the reviewer declines a review because of their current workload, the editor should go to someone else, rather than asking the reviewer for a suggested alternative. In my experience, many scientists will not do a review if they know a colleague has declined because he or she was “too busy”, because they are busy as well. I do not suggest colleagues when I decline a review unless that person is more appropriate because of their expertise, and I generally let them know that I have, or will, recommend them as a reviewer.
Within many biological disciplines, the number of professional scientists is declining, pressure to obtain outside funding is increasing, and research scientists are being required to perform administrative functions as well. The steps discussed above are just a few ways editors can facilitate the peer review process to ease the burden on journal reviewers.