After submission of a manuscript to a journal, and if the editor does not reject it right away, the manuscript is sent out for peer review. Peer review is very important for the whole publication process, without it major flaws and minor errors would not be caught before publication. It is essential for the quality of publications to have all manuscripts peer-reviewed. Journals that do not provide peer-review (predatory journals) are not taken seriously and it is not wise to publish in them.
After submission of a manuscript, it can take a long time before a manuscript is peer-reviewed and a first decision is made. One of the reasons it takes so long is that it can be difficult for editors to find reviewers that are both knowledgeable in a specific field and willing to review the manuscript. Some research suggests that difficulty finding reviewers also affects the editorial decision: when it is difficult to find reviewers for a manuscript it is more likely to get rejected, regardless of the reviewers’ recommendations. Some journals even reject papers outright when they have trouble finding peer reviewers within a reasonable time.
Peer reviewers are mostly unpaid and until recently their efforts went mostly unacknowledged. Peer reviewing takes time off the time available for research or clinical tasks and therefore does not have a high priority for the reviewer. So why do peer-reviewers accept or decline a reviewing task and what can be done to increase the number of accepted tasks?
Reasons why reviewers accept peer review tasks
So why do reviewers accept the task of reviewing an article? There are very few journals (such as BMJ, Drugs in Context, and occasionally The Lancet) that pay reviewers for their efforts. So payment is, in general, not a motivation. In a survey (Tite 2007) reviewers (551 respondents) stated that the top three reasons to accept peer-review tasks are: ‘the contribution of the paper to the subject area’, ‘relevance of the topic to my own work or interests’, and ‘the opportunity to learn something new’. So, in general, the respondents accepted reviewing tasks when the subject was interesting and the respondent could benefit from it by learning something new.
Reasons why reviewers decline peer review tasks
The reasons why respondents decline reviewing tasks are ´conflict with other workload´, ´having too many reviews for other journals´, and ´tight deadline for completing the review´. These three reasons all come down to the same thing: the respondents just don´t have the time for all these reviews.
Incentives for reviewers
According to the reviewers in the study (Tite 2007) offering financial incentives is not seen as a great method to increase the number of tasks accepted, these people are busy and providing a small financial compensation will not change that. ´Free access or subscription to the journal´ was seen as the best incentive, followed by ´annual acknowledgment of all reviewers on the journal´s website´, and ´more feedback from the editor about the outcome of the submission´. While free access or subscription are not given as a reward in return for a review, some journals do give a discount on future submission. With publication fees up to $5000, this may be an attractive reward.
The incentive that was least popular among the reviewers was ´publication of the review with the article´. This is however practiced by several journals, although I wonder how many potential reviewers actually shy away from reviewing for these journals precisely for that reason. It is one thing to critically review a manuscript of a colleague in your field anonymously, but when you know your review and your name will be published alongside the article you will tend to choose your words more carefully and the review will thus take more time.
Recognition for peer review
In the past years, many reviewers complained about the lack of recognition for the reviewer tasks: everyone is expected to review but no one is rewarded for it, as no one can see the effort put in. Therefore in 2012, a new initiative was launched, Publons, where every reviewer can create a profile to keep track of their peer review and editorial activities. This way, reviewing work is made visible and becomes a measurable research output that can be reported on a resume. In addition, as academics are usually asked to review if they have a good standing in a field, a strong Publons record can be seen as evidence of a good standing and influence in the field. Currently, over 1.8 million reviewers have a Publons profile and many millions of reviews have been entered. It will be interesting to see whether now, as the number of Publons records is growing, the willingness to accept review tasks is increasing as well.