Scientists drowning in review requests
Academic journals are having increasing difficulty finding experts who are willing to review submitted articles. The quality of academic publications will suffer, researchers fear.
Neuroscientist Guillaume Sescousse was astounded when the journal NeuroImage recently rejected his research article. His astonishment was not so much due to the rejection itself – journals are selective and publish only a number of all articles they receive – but to the reasons. The journal had been able to find only one expert to review Sescousses’ manuscript, whereas two or three are needed for this process of peer review.
‘If you want to write a good review, you need at least half a day’
‘I was really pissed off,’ says Sescousse on the phone from Lyon, where he recently began working. Until this autumn, he was a postdoc researcher at the Donders Institute, where he led the rejected study. ‘The editor of NeuroImage based her decision on the judgment of only that one expert. That is completely wrong.’
Sescousses’ experience fits a pattern. Reviewers are increasingly difficult to find, as was shown in a study by the science site Publon, which was held among 11,000 scientists worldwide. Nature was one of the journals that drew attention to this. In 2013 editors had to approach only 1.9 people in their search for a willing reviewer, but in 2017 this had increased by more than a fourth to 2.4. The report called the phenomenon ‘reviewer fatigue’.
That’s not so surprising, says Marijtje Jongsma, Radboud researcher and spokesperson for VAWO Academic Union. Researchers are publishing more and more, which naturally leads to their also receiving more requests to review others. ‘If you want to write a good review, you need at least half a day.’ She is concerned that the review quality will come under pressure from the increase in review requests, as in the case of Sescousse. ‘That’s worrying. Peer review is the golden standard for quality control in science.’
Publications are the most important way in which scientists communicate with one another. But journals publish results only after they have been judged by a number of colleagues – the golden standard. The consensus of the academic world is that, to safeguard quality, it’s essential that several experts read a submitted article.
Professor of Organismal Animal Physiology Gert Flik recognises the problem. As the editor of the Journal of Fish Biology and other publications, he’s often flooded with submitted articles, he says at his office at Heyendaalseweg. ‘Especially from countries like China and India.’
The quality of those Asian articles is often under par. ‘The title sometimes sounds promising, but the article itself proves to be complete rubbish. They know something about the subject, but the essence eludes them.’ He estimates that no more than five percent of non-Western articles are published.
That doesn’t sound like much, but in 2017 China sent almost as many articles to journals as did scientists in the US, as was shown in the same Publon study. As such, the country holds second place worldwide.
The figures show that the articles that pass the first selection (by the editor) are usually judged by Western reviewers. Where Americans and Brits review two articles for every article they themselves submit, scientists in China review fewer than one.
As a possible solution to ‘reviewer fatigue’, immunologist Mihai Netea at Radboud university medical center suggests that the Chinese reviewers should review more frequently. ‘Or ask postdocs instead of senior researchers.’ This professor of Experimental Internal Medicine receives about ten review requests weekly, he says. ‘I refuse three-fourths. But then I always suggest someone else they could ask.’
‘PhD candidates encounter delays’
Netea himself publishes a lot, as was recently shown in an analysis in Nature. Doesn’t that make him part of the problem? ‘No, because I also review a lot. You can see that in the lists: researchers who publish a lot also review many other articles. Furthermore, it’s not an option to stop doing research and publishing because it’s hard to find reviewers.’
Neuroscientist Sescousse sees yet another solution: pay researchers for their review work. ‘Everyone does it voluntarily now, which isn’t very motivating.’ He knows that journals like the open access journal Collabra have recently begun to pay reviewers. ‘And you can choose to keep the money yourself, give it to your university or give it to a fund that helps to support publications from countries that are not as financially strong.’
His rejected article is now at another journal – four months later than necessary. ‘Look, it doesn’t make much difference for me. I have a permanent position. But it can have more consequences for PhD candidates, who may well encounter delays.’ And it will take longer before scientific results reach colleagues and society, he emphasises.