Any blog about the future of peer review should start with a brief mention of its history. The actual process of peer review can be dated back to the 18th century. It has of course evolved since then and one notable step was the introduction of external reviewers in the middle of the 19th century. This model, however, only really became the norm in the middle of the 20th century.
We can only speculate on what the future of peer review will be and how recent challenges and innovations will act to shape it. One thing is however sure: this future will depend on the key players of tomorrow, the ones who will one day hold the reins. The future of scientific research depends on today’s early career researchers (ECRs) and thus they will also play an instrumental role in shaping the future of peer review. Therefore, I decided to reach out to a selection of ECRs to gather their thoughts and hopes about the future of peer review.
I would like to start by acknowledging them as this blog would not have been possible without their contribution and time is a very valuable currency nowadays, especially for ECRs in the demanding research world.
Dr Julia Sanchez-Garrido is originally from Spain but has been living in the UK for 10 years. She obtained her PhD at Imperial College London in 2018 and has been working as a postdoc there since then.
Dr Clemens Falker-Gieske obtained his Dr. rer. nat. in Biology for his work on the role of exosomal vesicles in Alzheimer’s disease. He then acquired additional expertise in computational biology. He is currently working in animal sciences with a focus on animal welfare issues such as behavior and diseases. He is based in Germany.
Dr Stephanie Tsai was born and raised in the USA. She has been doing research in the field of regenerative biology since she was in high school and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
Dr Yu Wan grew up in China and has been working in research since 2015. Wan is currently a research associate at the Imperial College London.
Partha Sarathi Tripathy is from India and is currently a PhD student in Norway. He has been working in research for the past 8 years.
Now without further ado, we will dive into their answers to the questions I had prepared.
To set the scene, the participants were first asked how familiar they were with the peer review system and whether they had already reviewed a manuscript or worked as an editor. Unsurprisingly, all of them had already reviewed manuscripts and Partha Sarathi Tripathy mentioned that he is working as an editor for an aquaculture journal in India. I then went on to ask them what their opinion of the current peer review system was.
How do you think the current peer review system is working?
Unsurprisingly, there was a consensus around the fact that there are currently not enough rewards to motivate researchers to dedicate time in their busy schedule to reviewing manuscripts, given the pressure they are subjected to. This issue then leads to difficulty in finding reviewers and can also result in poor quality review reports. However, as Julia Sanchez-Garrido said, “being reviewed by your peers is still the gold standard (who else can review your work?).” Stephanie Tsai also mentioned that she thought the system would benefit from more double-blind and transparent review.
My next question delved more into the specific aspects of the system that they liked or disliked.
Can you tell me one thing that you like about it and one thing that you dislike?
All the participants answered that they liked the fact that constructive criticism from a reviewer can improve a paper, for example by judiciously suggesting additional experiments, provided this reviewer is unbiased, familiar with the field of research in question and that the suggested changes are reasonable. “Editors and reviewers both should be reasonable about considering the time and necessity of those suggestions to the core findings of the work,” said Tsai. Partha Sarathi Tripathy added: “The thing I like about the system is that it helps to ensure the quality and integrity of scientific literature. By having multiple experts review a paper, errors and inaccuracies can be caught before publication”
“Being reviewed by your peers is still the gold standard (who else can review your work?)” Julia Sanchez-Garrido
In a similar fashion, the aspects that they disliked were also centered around reviewers but this time mentioning the bad aspects that can stem from the anonymous status of reviewers, such as being unfair, letting a bias (conscious or unconscious) influence their judgement or suggesting unnecessary changes that might even be wrong. The commercial aspect of the system was also mentioned as a negative trait: “I dislike the peer-review model of some commercial journals, who charge expensive article processing fees (including open-access charges) from researchers, build paywalls for readers, and ask researchers to review articles for free,” said Yu Wan.
My next question prompted them to identify what changes they would implement if they had the chance to do so.
If you had a magic wand and could change anything/everything about the current peer review system, what would you change?
Here again the answers were homogeneous and similar changes were suggested. The need for better acknowledgment of the work accomplished by the reviewer was an important concern, along with how this work should be publicly displayed – similarly to platform such as ORCID in order to serve as evidence to advance the career of reviewers. Yu Wan stated: “If a researcher’s academic contribution is measured by the number and quality of papers that they have published, the researcher’s contribution to peer review should also be recognized in the same way.” Wan then went on to add: “I would also promote open/transparent peer review, with reviewers’ comments, names, affiliations shown (with reviewers’ consent) when the paper gets published. Reviewers often play an essential role in improving the paper’s quality and therefore, their contributions should be recognized as fairly as authors.”
“Reviewers often play an essential role in improving the paper’s quality and therefore, their contributions should be recognized as fairly as authors.” Yu Wan
A second change that was mentioned several times was the need for more transparency, better rules or guidelines around the peer review process, or even training courses for reviewers as suggested by Tripathy and Sanchez-Garrido to ensure that researchers are aware of predatory journals and ensure that: “the effort and time invested in the review is worthwhile for the field.” Clemens Falker-Gieske also mentioned that the lack of clear rules around what is needed for a paper to be accepted can lead to a feeling of randomness for the researchers: “Often it appears quite random if a paper is accepted or rejected because it 100% depends on the assessment of the reviewers and the editor, which usually is a team of only 3 persons.”
Tsai also added that: “agreeing on a formalized acceptable revision plan based on a consensus between the editors and all of the reviewers of what experiments may be required for revisions would greatly benefit authors.”
Several of the participants actually anticipated my next question, which was centered around transparent peer review.
What do you think of the recent changes such as transparent peer review? Do you like this principle and would you like to see more of it?
A very strong “yes” was received from all the participants, which was heartening, as transparent peer review is becoming increasingly more present and is already the norm at many journals.
They liked the fact that the history of the review of a manuscript is now accessible and allows a better understanding of the manuscript and a deeper dive. Many ECRs mentioned that they would like to see more transparent review and that all journals should adopt it. The fact that it contributes to research integrity was also mentioned and Tripathy added that: “knowing that their reviews will be public might motivate reviewers to be more thorough and constructive in their feedback,” and then went on to say that “transparency can boost public trust in the scientific process by demonstrating the scrutiny under which studies are evaluated before publication.”
However, Sanchez-Garrido also discussed issues that can stem from open peer review: “On the other hand I would say open peer review, where the reviewer’s identities are revealed, can be problematic as it has the potential to lead to resentment and/or gratefulness towards specific individuals. In my opinion the process should be anonymous in both directions, to also avoid favoritism.”
“Agreeing on a formalized acceptable revision plan based on a consensus between the editors and all of the reviewers of what experiments may be required for revisions would greatly benefit authors.” Stephanie Tsai
My next question focused more on the future of peer review.
What do you think will be the future of peer review? Do you think the current model will continue ad eternum or do you foresee changes?
Different points of view were shared here. Sanchez-Garrido mentioned that “we have yet to find a better system that works as well and that is sustainable.” Falker-Gieske mentioned the problems of “fake AI-generated papers” and how “the detection of fake results should be the top priority, since fake results in medicine already cost lives.” Tsai hoped for more transparent peer review and “policies to reduce individual reviewer biases such as double blinded review.” Wan stated that “the current model of peer review is not sustainable given the increasing pressure that researchers are facing and therefore, changes must be taken.” Tripathy added: “it’s clear that the demands of the modern scientific community, combined with technological advancements, will drive changes. The ultimate goal will always be to uphold the quality, integrity, and advancement of scientific knowledge.”
My next question was then centered around artificial intelligence (AI) and what they thought of employing it.
What do you think about the inclusion of artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT in the peer review process?
The general response was that caution was required with the use of AI and how its use, if permitted, should be limited. Sanchez-Garrido said that she did not think it had reached a stage where it could be used but that it would likely be used in the future. Falker-Gieske mentioned that it could be used for quality checks: language, plagiarism, authenticity. Tsai cautiously stated: “completely removing the scientist would be less than ideal given how peer review is critical for assessing the quality of research being published and the reality of reviewer experiments (time, feasibility etc.).” Wan had a similar answer and mentioned it should be used with caution but that “AI would be a powerful tool for checking plagiarism and image manipulations or to assist reviewers in summarizing the work or searching for relevant publications.” Wan also added that “human’s expertise, experience, and accountability will always be pivotal in peer review,” a point that was also made by Tripathy: “the human touch – the expertise, intuition, and critical thinking that researchers bring to the table – will remain invaluable.”
“Transparency can boost public trust in the scientific process by demonstrating the scrutiny under which studies are evaluated before publication.” Partha Sarathi Tripathy
I went on to ask them about what changes would be implemented in the next 10 years.
What do you think the peer review system will be like 10 years from now?
Tripathy and Sanchez-Garrido postulated on a Hybrid Review System combining human experts in the field with AI use at the initial steps in order to streamline the process. They also mentioned an increase in transparent review, as did Tsai.
My next question was to ask them what changes they would implement if they had the choice.
How would you like it to be if it were up to you?
Sanchez-Garrido answered that she “would like junior researchers to get more of a chance to see how the publishing process goes and get involved in reviewing.” Falker-Gieske added “more transparent, fair and comparable between journals.” Tsai suggested that “editors and reviewers altogether discuss the manuscript in question at the end of their review briefly to come up with a plan for what they envision being required for revisions.”
Wan suggested key points: “1. Fair and transparent review models. 2. Diverse and effective motivations for reviewers. 3. Recognition of peer review in researcher’s promotion processes and grant applications. 4. Use of AI review assistants.” Finally Tripathy added that “Platforms might emerge that give reviewers formal credit for their contributions, possibly even considering reviews as a form of scholarly output.”
And to conclude I asked them if they had any further comments.
“The detection of fake results should be the top priority, since fake results in medicine already cost lives.” Clemens Falker-Gieske
Do you have any comments/advice to give us (BMC/Springer Nature) about the peer review process?
An encouraging comment from Sanchez-Garrido: “I like the fact that transparent peer review has become the norm!”; a recommendation from Falker-Gieske: “Make sure editors keep an eye on the quality of reviewer reports.”; and a request from Tripathy: “the system needs to be a faster and accurate.”
To conclude, I feel very hopeful after writing this interview piece. When I set out with the plan to conduct these interviews, I did not know what to expect, whether anyone would actually be interested to share their opinion with me and whether they would be worth reading. It has been so refreshing and helpful to collect all these opinions and write this blog. ECRs have many useful ideas and suggestions and they care! As long as we, publishers, editors and the likes, keep the dialog open, I am confident that we will work together towards a bright future for peer review!