/ 6 March 2024

The search is on for the good academic reviewer

Magnifier On Open Book

Not a week goes by when I don’t receive an email asking me to review a manuscript for an academic journal. Some of these requests come from highly ranked journals and often ask for a timed turnaround for my feedback. Other requests come from what could be termed “dodgy journals” with an extended request for me to join their editorial committee. The limitations of time deny me the chance to attend to all these requests. 

Then there are those requests informing me I have been nominated to act as a reviewer. The cloud clears when the journal identifies the colleague who has done the nomination. So much for blind peer review.

A question to ponder, though, is, “Where have all the academic reviewers gone?” I cling to the answer that the reviewers are there in the academy. But some are stuck doing administrative duties, an unavoidable responsibility in institutions of higher learning. They just don’t have the time to do reviews. Others are mortified by the expectation to write as an academic, let alone review. 

Yet the work of publishing and conducting reviews is an unavoidable part of what Professor Keyan Tomaselli, in the South African Journal of Science, calls the two-fold work of “academic citizenship”. 

The shortage of academic reviewers adds to our other chronic shortages in the academy and it appears to be a problem across disciplines. Noting this, Dr Bridget Farham, editor of the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ), made some observations in a commentary published in 2020 by the South African Journal of Science

In 2020 the SAMJ had a total of 1 200 reviewers on their database. Of these, 200 are used and only 150 are deemed “regulars” who “complete reviews”, given their time constraints. The low participation of reviewers potentially deflates the crucial activity of peer review.

Internationally, there is also a problem within the peer review of academic publishing. Some frame reviewer fatigue as a cause. In one week alone, I have received at least four requests for peer review from South African journals, three from the African continent and two internationally. This exposes the scale of the problem of reviewing.

The idea of reviewer fatigue can coalesce feelings of anger and being overwhelmed by all these requests. The guilt factor often comes in — a moral conundrum. A senior colleague with more than 15 years’ experience says this guilt forces them to give a review because they fear a negative outcome to their paper also under review. also under review. The quality of the review though can be questionable.

The importance of peer review

Many colleagues argue that the championing of high-quality peer review is connected to the advancement of scholarship. Such a championing also creates a passageway of research that makes it to the theory, policy and practitioner press. The argument is, therefore, that one cannot divorce the work of scholarly publishing from conducting reviews. Thus, academics and practitioners alike who offer their services to peer review are involved in a work of academic citizenship as an important vanguard for scrutiny and an enhancement of standards.

This academic citizenship work of peer review does not come easy. Even when a review is done, the decision-making to accept or reject a manuscript remains the preserve of the journal editor. 

A second typification, the reviewer number 2 trope, often leads others to cop out in participating in the review process. This reviewer 2 trope is characterised by a sense that, for one to give a good review, it must be negative, stand in judgment of the work and potentially be a stumbling block towards getting the submitted manuscript published. An entire Facebook group has been created around this with growing international appeal — “Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped”.

The job of the reviewer is to serve as an interface in enhancing quality control through scrutiny. The sole desire here is to offer advice on work and how it can be improved. Often the reviewer is encouraged to reserve their opinion in favour of balance and constructive feedback. The feedback is then used to make a final decision on a submitted manuscript.

The difficulty of getting reviewers

Some issues do come up concerning the peer review process. A notable shortage in skilled reviewers is one. The SAMJ numbers presented earlier attest to how precarious this situation is. Some would like to be reviewers, but do not know how to give a good review. This appears to be a real and continuing problem in the academy. Four issues may provide answers for why it is difficult to get reviewers.

First, emphasis within the academy is overly placed on the need to hone in on academic writing skills and acumen. The deliverable to this being publication in scholarly outlets. The performance management systems of universities are designed to measure aspects of performance linked more to the work of producing output rather than in the work of scrutiny of such output. 

In South Africa, emphasis in the academy is on publishing in journals on the department of higher education and training’s accredited list. Such a setting is skewed more towards developing authors than reviewers. Often this results in apathy towards the work of conducting reviews.

An interesting conclusion is made by a team of researchers in the South African Journal of Education magnifying the important work of review. The work by Philip van der Westhuizen and colleagues flag a publication rate of 25% of work submitted to journals globally. The advice offered in view of this high rejection rate is that authors could participate in the work of review and giving (and attending to) feedback to “lead to an improvement in the quality of future submissions to a journal”.

In seeking to attain a balance, equal effort should be made in training academics how to write and how to review critically. The problem of having unskilled reviewers compromises knowledge production. For the unskilled reviewer, the process of review can be confused with having to be harsh and negative, offering little constructive criticism and advice. Skilling and re-skilling reviewers is an ongoing activity deserving attention in the academy.

Second, the setup of the higher education sector has created problems that inherently deprioritise the uptake of reviewing skills. We are living in an era of a global knowledge surge, an epoch characterised by an increase in the number of journals across disciplines and a burgeoning fraternity of authors all seeking to proffer solutions to the global problems we face. 

Yet, at the same time, it is a period of concern. The tipping point appears to favour the authorship game, neglecting the work of review. The perception is that your mobility within the academy is based on research output and less on the contribution to work such as review.

What can be done?

Some solutions can be suggested to encourage the appetite for academic review. Let’s get back to the basics: developing equally the two-fold work of writing and reviewing. The appeal is further magnified as the need for balanced “scientific altruism” as argued by Tim Schepers and Stefan Rammelt. The plea here, across disciplines, is that those prepared to be published must also be prepared to review. The numbers in the academy prepared to publish are certainly big enough to move the dial in balancing between requests to publish and also to review.

There is also a discussion exploring the role that artificial intelligence and tools such as ChatGPT could play in aiding the review process such as fact checking. Tomaselli, in the South African Journal of Science, reminds us that the peer review process is not perfect. An early career scholar recently said they were mortified in May 2023 that their manuscript had been rejected with detailed comments but, sending the same paper in June 2023 with no changes made the article was published in February 2024 in a leading international journal.

The use of such tools could help reduce the amount of time it takes to review. The work of ChatGPT could be to assess how ideas and information is organised, fact checking and interrogating processes of data analysis and conclusions made from the research. But the introduction of such tools potentially exposes the academy to ethical tensions. Issues of authorship and a mortgaging of human responsibility to the work review in favour of the machine arise. The prospect of missing errors and misrepresentation is also a concern.

Journal editors could tighten up the review process through appointing a dedicated team of section editors. The duty here would be to assist in submitted work for review to the best reviewers. Such an effort could place value on the time of reviewers, especially given other constraints demanding for their time. Intentionality is needed by the journals and their publishing houses in enhancing the work of peer review. For instance, The South African Journal of Science has been running a peer review mentoring programme. Such an exercise sees early career researchers being mentored by senior colleagues on the work of peer review. The journal is developing the pipeline of good reviewers and enhancing continuity.

Other contentious issues could be explored such as a) should we pay reviewers for their efforts in conducting the work of review? b) should university performance management systems equally tilt favour in showing for evidence of review in their performance regimes? and c) is there ever such a thing as bad science especially given how subjectivity creates bias and how does this then affect the work of review?

This is a discussion that is enduring.

Willie Chinyamurindi is affiliated with the University of Fort Hare as a full professor and a rated researcher with the National Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are his own.