Important notice for all academic journal reviewers

Patricia Thornley from Aston University has published an article on LinkedIn with a personal reflection on the value of peer review in science and the risks associated with changing this system as we move towards more open access.

Yesterday I worked with colleagues to finalise our author response to reviewer comments and submit the revision of our most recent paper. The reviewers (three of them) all agreed it was a good paper (phew!), but they each took the time to challenge us about what we had done, why and how we had described it. They meticulously scrutinised our figures and data, making helpful suggestions about how presentation of these could be improved. They encouraged us to go further with our conclusions, take a risk and really spell out the consequences. The reviewer comments alone ran to several pages and so it took quite a bit of effort to consider, adapt, revise and respond.

But I can honestly say it was worth it – the paper is much improved and the revision will be submitted next week. So I mainly wanted to say a very public thank-you to those three reviewers for giving so generously of their expertise and their time. I honestly felt we were ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, being supported by our scientific community to improve our work, our message and what we do next.

But I also wanted to extend that thank-you to all journal reviewers. As editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal, I see evidence every day of experienced and insightful reviewers giving freely of their time to improve the knowledge base in our community.

So, to each and every one of you who has ever reviewed a paper for Biomass and Bioenergy or any other journal: THANK YOU! You are so important to the integrity and credibility of our science.

Yet I worry about reviewers (the unsung heroes of this peer-review process): about the demands we put on them, with so many invitations to read so many papers with authors demanding increasingly short turnaround times.

And I worry about open access. I do a lot of work on policy relevant issues and so I am a really big fan of making science more accessible. But that requires more than just putting scientific ‘gobbledygook’ on open websites. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and I think it is important that we put into the public domain material that we are absolutely confident is robust and that we equip readers with the tools to understand the implications. We have seen in recent years how easy it is for fake news to become accepted truth, and recent rises in measles cases have been a sharp reminder of the ethical concerns we should have about ensuring that material put in the public domain is appropriately explained to those who may read it and (heaven forbid!) actually act on it. So, yes let’s put more science in the public domain, but let’s also ensure that what we put out is independent, rigorous and appropriately interpreted.

I work in bioenergy, a very contentious area with different opinions on the sustainability issues. Some days I see papers that I really like, some days I see some that make me think hard (the best ones!) and some days I see some that just make me roll my eyes and think “Oh no, not another one …”. I can (usually) see through the different levels of rigour and analysis and know which ones to value in my area, but I wouldn’t be able to discern the good from the indifferent in say microbiology or artificial intelligence.

The public trusts scientists and it is really important that we respond to that trust by taking care to share robust, rigorous, peer-reviewed science with an appropriate level of guidance and interpretation. So I worry about how we maintain that trust in an open access world, where the scientists are customers paying to have their own work put in the public domain and exercising consumer rights in their choice of journal and their expectations of turnaround time and favourable outcomes.

And that brings me back to reviewers. I have a willing database of thousands of reviewers in my journal. They know their job is to review, to challenge and to uphold the standards of scientific integrity on which we all depend. Does that relationship change when they review a paper for open access publication? Do they still have faith that the editor will take on board their valuable concerns even if it means turning away an author income stream? Do authors still respect the reviewers’ and editors’ contribution when they are consumers not applicants? Do we get the same level of ‘value added’ to the raw science that I have just experienced this week when we prioritise reviewers who can review quickly to meet promised journal benchmarks over those who review thoroughly?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and so it makes me incredibly nervous that we are embarking upon a change to the publishing system that will alter those finely balanced relationships between author, reviewer and editor, without fully understanding the potential consequences.

Disclaimer: Note that while I am a professor at Aston University, Director of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and Editor-in-Chief on an Elsevier journal, these musings are entirely my own independent thoughts – as they rightly should be!

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