John Dennehy has posted an interesting summary on The Evilutionary Biologist about professional peer review1. He notes, along with Marc Hauser and Ernst Fehr, that delays imposed by slow reviewers can be a significant source of frustration with the peer review process. The suggestion by Hauser and Fehr (2007) is to institute a system of punishments and rewards to get reviewers to submit reviews on schedule. Interesting idea, though I strongly oppose intentionally subjecting anyone’s work to delay as punishment, no matter how dawdling they are as reviewers. The scientific community at large should not be held back in order to punish specific individuals. There is also the obvious difficulty that reviewers may begin to substitute speed for quality in their review of manuscripts. I am currently reviewing four papers for four different journals. It will take time to get through them, and I hope to get them all in on time, but rushing them to meet a deadline won’t help the peer review process.
Long turnaround times are a real issue, and I have my own stories (one paper took over a year to show up in print). But my complaint regarding peer review comes as a reviewer rather than as an author. One of the biggest frustrations comes when one reviews a paper carefully, provides detailed comments, points out significant problems with the data, analysis, or interpretation, and recommends that the paper be rejected in its present format — and then it shows up in one’s mailbox again, unaltered, after simply having been submitted to a different journal, or worse, appears in print in another journal with none of the errors corrected. If anything shakes my confidence in the efficacy of peer review, it is this.
I understand full well the pressure to publish, but something has to be done about the tendency to submit a rejected paper — sometimes without even fixing typos that have been pointed out — to journal after journal (my current record is reviewing the same paper three times for three journals) until it gets through reviewers who are willing to let the mistakes slide or who lack the expertise to recognize the problems.
My suggested solution is that authors should be required to submit all previous reviews to any new journal to which they are sending the same paper. They should be required to show the editor that changes have been made or to justify why they have not. Otherwise, the peer review process is undermined, the quality of the science suffers, and the reviewers’ time is completely wasted.
1Not to be confused with the spectacle currently going on with regard to the flagellum paper.
Hauser M, Fehr E (2007) An incentive solution to the peer review problem. PLoS Biology 5: e107.