Peer review – a shifting deadline

Article peer review is an important part of our role as scientists, provided free of charge to scientific publishers, and a necessary (though not infallible) quality control on the published record.

Clearly, the vast majority of editors and pubishers appreciate the contributions of academics to this process. However, there’s increasing pressure coming from some journal editors to expedite peer review as quickly as possible – it’s unclear what impact this will have on review quailty, but it’s unlikely to be positive. The need to provide rapid reviews has come as publishers promise ever shrinking submission-to-decision times as one way to stand out in an overcrowded journal market.

Recently, I was invited to peer review an article and was given a perfectly reasonable two weeks to provide my comments. I accepted the editor’s invitation, but then nine days before the deadline I received an email saying my review was no longer required, as they’d already received sufficient comments. Fortunately, I hadn’t read the paper or started my report, and so initially wasn’t that bothered – it just gave me more time to deliver on my teaching commitments, get on with some overdue lab work, and finish two review articles of my own. But then various conversations with colleagues at LSHTM got me thinking. There are two reasons why I feel that this is a fundamentally poor way to behave (and why I won’t be accepting any invitations to review manuscripts for this journal in the future)…

1. I’d accepted the invitation and had set aside some time to read and comment on the scientific merits of the paper. It was only chance that I hadn’t started this process by the time I got the email telling me my comments were no longer required. I could just as easily have been a significant way through, meaning that my time would have been entirely wasted.

2. Delivering a peer review that is both fair and constructive for the authors, and supportive of the integrity of the scientific record, requires time and space in which to reflect on the data and interpretations presented. To rush this process does a disservice to the authors and has the potential to undermine the scientific literature; a remarkable amount of time and funding can be wasted by students and post-docs following up on results that are misrepresented in the literature or flat out wrong.

We rely on the scientific literature to a greater or lesser extent to identify the scientific questions we want to address and the hypotheses that we want to test. Therefore, it is imperative that we strive to maintain the quality of this exponentially growing resource, rather than seeking new ways to undermine it.