The Peer Review Crisis: A Commitment and a Request

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As many of your academics know (and all of you academics need to know), there’s a peer review crisis on. Potential peer reviewers are struggling with the weight of this unpaid and intense labour and journal editors are struggling to find enough people to review papers. The result is that most journals have huge paper backlogs, editors have to contact significantly more academics before they find enough people to say yes to reviewing a paper, and then those peer reviewers often take longer than is ideal for the journal and the author because they have other commitments. It is a mess.

This isn’t a post about how peer review is broken. It is very, very broken, I’m taking that as a given. This also isn’t a post about how to fix peer review, because whatever I think on that matter is unlikely to be adopted until the whole system implodes. It could be imploding now. Rather this is a post about working right now, in the moment, with what I/we have. Making it through the day.

A Commitment: I’m Submitting so I am Reviewing

In the past few months I have been submitting a lot of work for publication. In the coming months I and my junior researchers (who are less likely to be approached for peer review but NEED it to happen on their work) are going to be submitting a lot more. This is partially about coming to the end of year 3 in a 5 year funded research project. A lot of things we’ve been working on are maturing and are ready to see publication. Further, these publications lay the foundation for bigger picture things to come in our last two years. If each paper spawns 2 to 4 reviewers, we are asking for a lot of free labour from our colleagues. I am very aware of this.

In response, I am committing to peer review anything that I am reasonably asked to peer review within 2 weeks of accepting the task and up to about 1 peer reviews a week. That should be more than the amount of peer review that I and my junior researchers are requesting of others. I’m really trying to think of it as semi-transactional: what I must do to ensure my work gets reviewed. That isn’t good or right, but again this isn’t a “peer review is broken” post, this is an “I’m committing” post.

Consider if you can do the same right now if you or your junior researchers are submitting papers at the moment. Commit to putting in what you request of others because, look, if you are reading this you are likely one of my peer reviewers and I need you. I’m committing to review you…

A Request: Don’t Submit Half-Baked Work

I’m going to be blunt here: if I am going to devote my time to doing this amount of peer review, I am not going to take any sloppiness or guff. I am going to REJECT+RESUBMIT or perhaps just REJECT the moment that I see that the authors of the paper did not try to submit a polished piece. I will offer not substantive comments and I will just stop reading. Specifically, the following things, all of which should be obvious, I will REJECT:

  • Papers that have sloppy referencing, sloppy bibliographies, or sloppy formatting. If you haven’t taken the minimal time and effort to make your bibliographic entries even MATCH in style, let alone conform to the journals style, I am going to assume you didn’t take the minimal time needed to not make your whole paper not crappy. I am not here to work to understand your references, your lists, your subheadings, etc. and neither is the journal. Come back when you’ve shown me the basic curtesy of submitting a polished work.
  • Related (I think) to the above, unfinished or half baked work that is obviously being submitted to use the peer review process for substantive improvement. So when the author knows that the work isn’t finished or doesn’t make a lot of sense, or really knows that it is currently unpublishable, but is hoping that comments from the peer reviewers will help guide it to something publishable. This is the “throw it to peer review to see what they say” method of paper improvement and I am not in for this. Yes maybe a paper I review needs a lot of changes in the end, but I’m only going to offer that kind of substantive commentary to people who really do THINK that the work they submitted is done and ready to be published. Yet even in those situations, I am not going to go far into telling someone exactly how to fix their work. I don’t have time for that. I will be offering big picture things. I think that part of the sloppiness mentioned previously is about people submitting half-baked papers for free “help”.
  • Papers where the language isn’t good enough to make sense. I am a native English speaker working in a country where English is often the working academic language, but it isn’t my colleagues’ first language. I know how it is folks and I am aware of my publishing privilege here. However, if the language is very difficult to follow, uses wording that is contradictory or doesn’t make sense, or in any way obscures the points made by the paper, I will outright reject, again with no comments offered. It is not my job as a peer reviewer to try to guess what the writer means. These papers are unpublishable and thus they need to be rejected. This is a particular shame when it is clear there is something interesting in there, but it is not the peer reviewer’s job to find the something interesting and extract it through a wall of language.
  • Papers that are descriptive and just don’t rise to the level of publication yet or ever. There are a lot of these going around, sometimes by junior scholars, sometimes by senior scholars who know better but are chancing it for the CV line. While I want to support junior scholars, again, it isn’t a peer reviewer’s job to chart a pathway into making the descriptive analytical. I’m going to be nice about it, but still it is a reject

Some of this is Pretty Harsh but Times are Tough

I think I am usually a kind peer reviewer, if nothing else. While I try to be honest and fair, I am not mean. I have a strong tendency to favour “accept with major changes” over rejections because I hate the idea of hurting someone who has worked hard. I also can often see the potential in a work and I want to give people the opportunity to meet that potential. Yet, that just feeds the backlog and the drains on my time. Sometimes those “accept with major changes” papers come back two or three times and I keep reviewing them. Don’t get me wrong, there are a number of papers that need this, should have it, that have something really vital to say but need the review to get there. However, those are not papers that are in the categories I have listed above. I’ll be treating “accept with major changes” as a personal commitment I am making to the content from now on.