Further thoughts on Peer Review & speeding up traditional journal publication

Back in January, I wrote about Peer Review. It’s a big topic! Here are some more reflections, following on from my last blog post about it.

Speeding things up, in journal article publication. (On “Peer review takes a very long time”)

picture of a pocket watch

I wrote that peer review “takes a very long time” because many scholars want to get their work out there to be read, as soon as possible. Of course, this is a loose concept and “a very long time” is relative. Some might think that I am criticising publishers for being slow, but I’m not pointing the finger of blame! I know that publishers have been addressing the issue and peer review has sped up in recent times, especially since there is now software to can help track it: SPARC has a handy round-up of manuscript submission software. However, the peer reviewers themselves must respond and they are under a lot of pressure. The system can only be as fast as the slowest reviewer, and there are all sorts of (entirely understandable) circumstances that might slow an individual down.

I should take a look at some of the developments that have helped to speed up traditional scholarly communication, though:

Scholarly publishers have invested in initiatives like Sage’s OnlineFirst to help peer reviewed research articles to reach audiences before journal issues are complete, thus cutting publication waiting periods.

Some publishers have also introduced mega journals with cascading peer review systems, which are also often based on Gold Open Access. Impact Story’s blog has a great post about how authors can make the most of these types of journal.  These speed up an article’s time to publication because after a peer review that led to rejection from one title, your paper can get fast-tracked through to publication in the next “tier” title at the same publisher, without the need to submit again and start the process from the very beginning.

And of course, as a librarian I should mention the sophisticated alerting services that help researchers to find out about each others’ papers as soon as possible: researchers are no longer dependent on the print copy landing on their desk, and finding the time to browse through the table of contents!

Putting it online yourself is quicker: why not try that?

Some research repositories might take non-peer-reviewed content, and in theory, authors could always put a copy of their work on a personal web-page before peer review if they’re confident in it and just want it out there. There are disciplinary differences in authors’ reactions to this idea. This article in PLOS Biology makes the case for the biology community following in the footsteps of physics, in using pre-print servers to share such early versions. Its authors point out that there are benefits to doing this, including:

Posting manuscripts as preprints also has the potential to improve the quality of science by allowing prepublication feedback from a large pool of reviewers.

Many authors would not share their early manuscripts in this way, because they value peer review as a process of polishing their work. I think this is a reason for peer review to take place in the open, because then it becomes apparent just how important a contribution a peer reviewer might have made to a paper. As I said in my previous post, peer reviewers should get credit for their work, but perhaps I should have made it clear that I’m not talking about it looking good on their CV, or their peer review activity going down well with their Head of Department!

 

Even authors who are happy to share un-polished pre-peer-review versions of their work (aka pre-prints, aka manuscripts) might be wary if it is not the norm in their discipline, because it might prejudice their chances of publication in the big-name journals of their field. Authors will likely have to agree to clauses stating that the work has not previously been published elsewhere. When I worked at the University of Warwick, in the early days of their institutional repository we surveyed a number of big publishers to ask if they would consider repository deposit to constitute prior publication, and thus a breach of this kind of clause in their authors’ agreement. Some said yes, some said no.

This is not such a clear area for authors, and for many it’s not worth the time of enquiring or the risk of finding out the hard way, i.e. through rejection of their article because plagiarism detection software identifies it as previously published online. Researchers need the quality “badge” that a journal gives them, for their CV and their institution’s performance review processes: publishing articles is not all about communication to other researchers, but it is also about kudos.

 

For some authors therefore (I would guess most), the earliest version they might share would be a post-peer-review version (sometimes called a post-print, sometimes called an author’s final version), which if there are no embargo periods from the publisher, would become available at the same time as their article became available through an OnlineFirst scheme.

 

 

Post peer review: commentary and altmetrics

I mentioned post publication peer review in my previous post: I thought about it as an alternative to peer review then, and perhaps I should think about it more as something that is complementary to peer review. Perhaps peer review doesn’t need to be either traditional or post publication but it is already really a process that doesn’t end with publication.

 

There are many ways that researchers are sharing and commenting on each others’ work after it has been published, therefore after the peer review process for traditional articles. We can track these interactions on sites like Researchgate and Mendeley, and through altmetrics software that collates data on such interactions… but altmetrics and its role is a subject I’ve looked at separately already, and it’s one I’m likely to return to again later!

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