Peer review is cited by both authors and journal editors as a problem with the current publishing model. The two most common issues cited by authors are the length of time it takes and the quality of the reviews received. Some authors also feel that the match between the reviewers and the research manuscript itself is poor. Journal editors themselves also complain about the time taken to receive reviews of scientific papers (typically from weeks to months). Peer review it seems acts as a bottleneck in the publishing process, and as more manuscripts are submitted to journals every year the situation is likely to get worse.
How then can this process be made easier for all concerned? As we know, peer review is conducted without payment and is generally seen as an opportunity for researchers to give something back to the profession or to keep up with current work in a particular field. However, most academics tasked with peer review will admit that it is not a priority and that it often finds itself at the bottom of the “to do” list. Indeed, reviews are often left until the deadline is fast approaching, even though in some cases the journal will have allowed weeks for its completion (a typical review usually takes between 2 and 6 hours to complete).
Several solutions have been mooted, including shorter deadlines (focusing the mind of the reviewer), the use of standard templates, and provision of incentives. The notion of paying for peer review is a thorny one. First, who pays – the journal or the author? Second, will payment favour larger laboratories/institutions with larger budgets?
The concept of payed for peer review was tested recently by Nature Publishing Group (NPG). Scientific Reports (part of NPG) is an open-access journal whose content is accessible free of charge. Although there are no subscription fees, the journal does charge authors $1,495 to publish an article. Last year, the journal offered authors the option of “fast-track” peer review for an additional fee of US$750, which guaranteed a decision within 3 weeks. NPG justified this experiment on the grounds that a survey of authors suggested that 70% were frustrated with the time taken for peer review and that 67% supported exploration of alternative methods.
However, many scientists complained that this is setting a dangerous precedent in that it will likely result in a two-tier system wherein wealthier researchers can simply pay to “jump the queue”. Indeed, at least one of the journals voluntary editors resigned in protest at the experiment. This service ran for a trial period of 1 month and received 25 requests for fast track, mainly from Chinese authors, but also from authors in Europe and other Asia Pacific countries. So, there does appear to be a demand from authors for this type of service. NPG are currently reviewing the findings and gather feedback from everyone involved.
This is an intriguing attempt to address the frustrations associated with lengthy peer review, although as pointed out above it is somewhat controversial. Unsurprisingly, most reviewers would admit that if they received payment (or some other form of incentive) then they would find a way of prioritising their manuscript review and returning it promptly. Watch this space.
Details of the rationale behind the fast-track peer review experiment and its findings can be found by clicking on the links below.