The Broken System of Manuscript Reviewing

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

Anyone who is familiar with the process of publishing a scientific manuscript knows that there is often an issue in finding people to review your manuscript once it is submitted to a journal. And frankly, this is understandable. Senior scientists are confronted with so many different responsibilities (research, grant writing, manuscript writing, conferences, presentations, administrative duties, and sometimes teaching) that it is difficult to see how they would fit this into their busy schedule. Moreover, why should they fit it into their schedule with no real tangible benefit for doing so? Sure, being an altruistic member of the science community is ideal, but when faced with grant deadlines, teaching responsibilities, and a PhD student who is derailed in their research, how can you blame a scientist for clicking the decline button on the offer to review a manuscript.

Worse yet, there is some evidence that the more difficulty editors have in finding reviewers the more likely the manuscript is to be rejected by the journal. The reasons for this are not 100% clear, but it is suggested in this article that the more frequently a manuscript is declined for review the more (subconscious) negative associations an editor will have with the work, leading to more rejections. Furthermore, the fact there is a high rate at which potential reviewers decline reviewing manuscripts likely means that the people best suited to judge the work are not looking at it before it becomes published. Thus, we, as a scientific community, are not putting our research through the most stringent and insightful filter possible, thereby decreasing the quality of the work put out to the public and our colleagues.

So, how might we solve this significant problem? Well, here are some options:

1) Reviewer Retainer

What if journals paid a fee to enter into a retainer agreement with qualified scientists? These scientists would be dedicated reviewers for the journal and would be responsible for reviewing x number of manuscripts per year.

Benefits: Scientists get compensated for their time, scientists can place this on their CV, the journal is assured qualified and quick review of manuscripts, and this likely increased response times for authors.

Drawbacks: How does the journal afford this compensation? Will this compensation make publishing in the journal more expensive? You need to ensure that there is no pressure to accept or reject a manuscript.

2) Make it Part of Grant Funding

What if grant applications had a separate section for how many manuscripts you've reviewed in the last calendar year? This number could be correlated into a score that could be compared to your peers, and it would show how involved and (likely) knowledgable you are in the field. If granting agencies could put some weight to this section when making their overall decision, this could be an effective way of increasing quality reviewing of a manuscript.

Benefits: No direct monetary value is placed on reviewing a manuscript. May help scientists get grants funded.

Drawbacks: May be difficult to get grant agencies to adopt this strategy. Determining how to judge the number of manuscripts reviewed and how much weight should be given to it would be difficult. Moreover, some scientists in different situations may not be able to do as much reviewing as their colleagues (e.g., some scientists do not need to teach and are only responsible for research/grants etc.).

3) Pay per Review

This is probably the most simple of all the options. What if every journal had to pay the exact same flat rate for the review of a manuscript?

Benefits: Scientists get compensated for their time. This would likely increase the quality and speed of review.

Drawbacks: Again, how would this burden affect the journals and the authors trying to get their science published?

Let us know what you think. Do you like these ideas? Any problems that you see? Add you comments below!

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