The Contribution of Peer Review to Scholarly Publishing
Nurse Author & Editor, 2020, 30(2), 1
Peer review is a commonplace and accepted aspect of academic publishing and it is so well embedded that it is hard to imagine the process without it. While peer review has been around for centuries, the concept of modern peer review has only evolved since World War II. Nursing Research implemented peer review from its inception in 1952.5 Peer review has evolved into the norm that it is today, albeit that it takes place by a range of processes varying in terms of the extent of openness and blinding of peer reviewers and authors.1
The process is often misunderstood, especially by authors, but it can also be misunderstood by peer reviewers. Confusion by authors is something I encounter across the world when I give writing workshops. I am frequently asked a version of the following question: “My article was rejected by your journal, yet I submitted it somewhere else and it got published. Why?” My response, invariably, is to congratulate the person on having their article published and to say that, in answer to their question: “I don’t know.” However, I always take the opportunity to explain the peer review and, indeed, the editorial processes that may lead to this outcome. I tell them that peer review and subsequent decisions by editors are not necessarily scientific; they are an exchange of opinions. Opinions are not fixed, and decisions made based on these opinions may vary between editors as individuals and between journals as a matter of policy.
For example, one of my editorial colleagues on the Journal of Advanced Nursing showed me the outcome of the reviews requested for one manuscript. In this case, three reviews had been requested (presumably expert statistical advice was required in addition to advice on the clinical and academic aspects of the manuscript) and the three reviewers all gave different recommendations: one said “reject,” one said, “revise,” and the last one said, “accept.” This is evidence of how peer reviewing is neither a scientific nor an especially reliable process. Nevertheless, it remains useful. All these reviewers have different expertise and these views all need to be considered by the editor in arriving at a decision.
I edit two journals. One of these, Journal of Advanced Nursing is over 40 years old and there is considerable pressure on space. The journal seeks to publish the best possible articles, and these are judged on scientific rigour, novelty, and the extent to which we consider the article will be useful to the academic nursing community—in other words, the extent to which the article is likely to be downloaded and subsequently cited. These phenomena are readily measured and reported annually and, while we are not solely driven by impact factor, we do like to see that our total citations are high and if possible increasing yearly.
On the other hand, I also edit a new journal, Nursing Open currently entering its fifth year. The journal is developing its reputation and, while submissions are increasing, they are well below those at the Journal of Advanced Nursing. In addition, this journal operates an open access pay to publish model. The combination of relatively low submissions and unlimited space in the journal, which is solely available online, mean that it is easier to be published in Nursing Open. The journal seeks to publish sound science and operates within sound ethical parameters. However, we are not seeking necessarily to publish the same leading-edge articles as in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.
Therefore, an editor faced with the same manuscript and a set of decisions by at least a pair of peer reviewers, may make a different decision on either journal. Two reviewers recommending revisions may lead to rejection in the Journal of Advanced Nursing while it may lead to an opportunity to revise the manuscript for Nursing Open.
It is also the case that some reviewers—while perfectly competent at conducting reviews—do not understand fully the purpose of or the limits of reviewers. Following a recent posting on Twitter® about some aspect of peer reviewing I was taken to task by someone over the use of peer reviewers; the person asked why we bother with them if we sometimes ignore what they say. I also corresponded with a reviewer for one of my journals who noted that a rejected manuscript had been published. This reviewer would not accept my point—couched in gratitude for their review—that another reviewer had been positive about the manuscript. While not especially well written, I had edited it closely and had considered, along with the editor who had managed the review process, that it made a contribution to the literature. Such exchanges are rare, but they demonstrate that some reviewers may, despite the crucial role they play in academic publishing, have misinterpreted their function. In my view, the role of reviewers is to advise editors; however, it is editors who make the final decisions. Moreover, as indicated above, the decisions made based on peer reviews may differ between editors and they will certainly differ between journals.
The public and politicians also misunderstand the limits of peer review as the “Climategate” incident in the United Kingdom demonstrated. Climategate occurred in 2010 when the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University was accused of producing fraudulent data to support the theory of climate change. Details of their research were obtained illegally by email computer hackers who distributed the data widely. It was subsequently concluded by an investigation that fraudulent research had not been perpetrated but not before the press, some of the public and politicians were asking how such confusion could have arisen. They were under the misapprehension that the peer review system for academic publications would prevent such an outcome. A report on the incident was published2 which clarified the limits of peer review and a lengthy investigation by the UK House of Commons into peer review ensued leading to the publication of a very substantial report.3 The report exposed the manifest and manifold flaws in the peer review system but also concluded that, while peer review was far from perfect, a better system of trying to ensure scientific integrity did not exist.
|WHAT IS PEER REVIEW WEEK?
Peer Review Week is a global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The event brings together individuals, institutions, and organizations committed to sharing the central message that good peer review, whatever shape or form it might take, is critical to scholarly communications. We organize virtual and in-person events, webinars, interviews and social media activities.
|WHY PEER REVIEW WEEK?
I offer a few resources for people to become more engaged with peer review. Peer Review Week is held in September; this past year it celebrated its fifth anniversary. The box to the left gives some basic information about the purpose of the week. The Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication is held every four years; the ninth Congress will be held in Chicago, September 12-14, 2021 and will likely coincide with Peer Review Week. A recent editorial in JAMA4 has details on the Congress including suggestions for topics for research presentations. A call for abstracts will be announced later this year with a deadline in January 2021.
In conclusion, peer review is not perfect, but it is the system we have and it works well, particularly when people remember their interaction with the process. Authors benefit from review and commentary from experts, even when a manuscript is not accepted. They can use the feedback to revise their paper and hopefully learn from the process. Peer reviewers provide valuable feedback to the editor. Reading a wide variety of manuscripts on a continuum from excellent to awful can also be a valuable learning experience which can make reviewers better authors. Editors receive advice that provides a foundation for their decision to accept or reject a manuscript. Understanding the peer review dynamic is important for all who are involved in the process of disseminating nursing knowledge through the published literature.
The author has also made a podcast of this article. You can listen to it here: https://rwatson1955.podbean.com/e/the-contribution-of-peer-review-to-scholarly-publishing/
- Ali, P.A., & Watson, R. (2016). Peer review and the publication process. Nursing Open, 3: 193-202. doi:10.1002/nop2.51.
- House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. (2011a). The Reviews into the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit’s E-mails. The Stationery Office, London.
- House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. (2011b). Peer Review in scientific publications. The Stationery Office, London.
- Ioannidis, J. P. A., Berkwits, M., Flanagin, A., Godlee, F., & Bloom, T. (2019). The Ninth International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication: A Call for Research. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2019.15516
- Nicoll, L. H. (2018). The impact of the photocopier on peer review and nursing theory. Nursing Research, 67(2), 74–80. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNR.0000000000000236
About the Author
Roger Watson, PhD, RN, FAAN, FRCN, is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Advanced Nursing and Editor of Nursing Open and an editorial board member of the WikiJournal of Medicine. He has honorary and visiting positions in China, Hong Kong, and Australia. He is Professor of Nursing, University of Hull, UK. He is also a member of the Authors-in-Residence for Nurse Author & Editor. Contact Roger by email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @rwatson1955. His ORCiD is orcid.org/000-0001-8040-7625.
2020 30 2 1 Watson
Copyright 2020: The Author. May not be reproduced without permission.
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