Let’s Get Creative With Our Peer Review!

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I’ve been around the editorial block a few times now, as a volunteer editor, peer reviewer, and author/co-author. One of the most dreaded steps of the whole process concerns author-recommended peer reviewers. It can be agonizing as an author to make the selections and hard work for an editor to figure out which suggestions have a likelihood of panning out as meaningful reviews. In the various papers I’ve authored, co-authored, and edited, a few problems appear with some frequency:

  1. Adding Dr. McFamous to the list of reviewers. Odds are non-negligible that this person is already overtaxed with review requests and will say no. If they do accept, odds are also non-negligible that their review will be about three sentences of fairly uninformative commentary, submitted 2-3 weeks after the deadline. Unless this person is a legitimate expert who has recently published on the specific topic of the paper, find someone else who is more qualified and more likely to have the time to review the paper in the detail it deserves. I am somewhat surprised by the frequency with which authors will suggest someone simply because they are well-known, without regard for whether the person is the best expert for the job.
  2. Submitting a “no fly” list of reviewers that is a mile long. There are legitimate reasons to request certain researchers to not review a paper (conflict of interest, real or perceived unprofessionalism, whatever), but anytime more than two or three people are listed, that raises all sorts of red flags for an editor. Possible explanations? 1) One of the authors has ticked off 90% of their colleagues. 2) The paper is so flimsy that anyone with real expertise is going to shoot it down. 3) The authors won’t accept even constructive criticism and are going to be a pain to both reviewers and editors. Note how none of this reflects well on the authors. As an editor, I do my very best to respect authors’ wishes, but there are times where some requests really stretch credulity.
  3. Suggesting reviewers from the same institution or research group as one of the authors. This happens with surprising frequency; even if you are at a quite large institution or within a fairly large research group, and even if the suggested reviewer is only a vague acquaintance, it has the appearance of a fairly major conflict of interest. If at all possible (yes, it can be difficult in small subfields or for certain taxa), suggest someone else.
  4. Same. Old. Reviewers. This syndrome regularly affects authors and editors alike. The result is a list of overwhelmingly male suggested reviewers, overwhelmingly from a handful of large Western European and North American research institutions. It is sometimes correlated with #1 (Dr. McFamous), because said expert once published a paper on the subject in Nature back in 1998, even if their research for the past 15 years has taken an entirely different direction. In all honesty, these scientists are not the only people qualified to review their papers, or often even the best people. Some really exciting science is happening at small research institutions, community colleges, and places outside the USA, by people from exceptionally varied backgrounds. If we say we want to diversify science (and we all hear this rhetoric frequently), let’s get serious about it when it comes to suggesting and inviting reviewers!
Your manuscript isn't as arcane as you think it is. The number of qualified peer reviewers may surprise you! Image of Codex Leicester, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Your manuscript isn’t as arcane as you think it is. The number of qualified peer reviewers may surprise you! Image of Codex Leicester, by Leonardo da Vinci, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

If I had to guess, #4 (“Same. Old. Reviewers”) is the most prevalent, and I am undoubtedly guilty of it too, from both sides. That said, I’ve been making some serious efforts both as an editor and as an author to recognize and address the problem. Google Scholar is a major asset in this regard–a quick search on a topic, narrowed to the last two or three years of publications, will often bring up at least two or three reviewers with appropriate expertise. I tried the strategy with a paper I submitted recently and identified a couple of surprisingly logical and undoubtedly qualified researchers whom I had embarrassingly overlooked. The result was a deeper, more balanced suggested reviewer list and presumably a better review of my paper.

So, here’s my challenge to authors: be more creative on your list of suggested reviewers. And for editors: be more creative in whom you ask to review papers. Let’s build a better world of peer review!

[Just to reiterate, all opinions stated here are solely mine, and do not represent an official (or even unofficial) stance by any organization with which I am associated. Furthermore, the issues discussed here happen frequently enough over the years (seriously!) that it should be apparent I'm not talking about any paper in particular.]

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