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Vol. 9 No. 4 - October 2003

Peer Review? What? And Why?

(A Commentary)

Sagar V. Krupa

Since attending ICPEP-2 (International Conference on Plants and Environmental Pollution) in Lucknow, India in 2002, I have been asked on several occasions about the “Peer Review” process associated with the Conference papers, prior to their acceptance and publication. Some from the developing countries felt that their reputation and stature were being challenged, while others believed that it was an unnecessary irritation.

I have served for some 20 years as an Associate Editor of the journal “Environmental Pollution” and I am also the Chief Editor for the Book Series “Developments in Environmental Science.” Elsevier Science of Amsterdam, Netherlands, publishes both. I also act as a peer reviewer for manuscripts from some 10 different international journals. Thus, when Dr. K. J. Ahmad (Secretary, ISEB) invited me to write this article regarding the aforementioned subject, I readily agreed.

A “peer” is defined as “a person of equal standing.” Scientific recognition, reputation and respect among others are intimately associated with peer opinion. Peer reviews are used in, 1. Selecting an employee, determining promotions, 2. Awarding funding (grant) for a particular cause, 3. Assessing the quality of teaching in a classroom and 5. Determining the merits of a particular work for publication. There are other examples as well.

Peer review can be conducted in several different ways. They include: 1. Seeking the opinions of individuals in a population, as in human epidemiological research, 2. Using a panel of experts to select which research proposal should be funded or writing an authoritative document that has wide implications, 3. Using student opinions, coupled with those of the peer colleagues in determining the quality of teaching by an individual in a classroom and 4. Using two or more experts in assessing the quality of a manuscript for its publication in a journal. No doubt, there are still other ways of conducting peer reviews, as in human medicine and in Biotechnology.

Peer review is a mechanism for preserving the originality, authenticity, validity and quality of a particular work. It is also a way to prevent “plagiarism”. Certainly some of those issues have led to controversy. Nevertheless, peer review is the standard and widely accepted method for evaluating the quality of papers submitted for publication, even in electronic publishing.

Peer reviews have their own problems. In some cases there can be a conflict of interest or a pre-determined scientific view on the part of a reviewer that may influence his or her review. Many peer review processes require the reviewer to disclose such information a priori, so that such individuals are not included in the overall process. Failure to disclose such information can frequently lead to disservice and penalties. Another source of the problem can be, when the Editor of a journal who serves as an adjudicator errs in selecting the reviewers.

Although many peer reviewers are dedicated and take their task very seriously, others do not. At least in some US Universities, there are no institutional rewards for the time spent in peer reviews. That makes it difficult for young faculty members seeking promotion. I was quite impressed by a young scientist who expressed his profound apologies to me for his inability to perform a review, because he was too involved at that time in collecting field data for a publication (one of the requirements for his promotion), but given another opportunity, would enjoy the effort and would welcome it. What an honest response? Another young faculty member produced a 5-page review on a 10- page manuscript. The most impressive aspect of that review was, every one of the comments was directed at making the paper better. How can the authors of the paper get any more unsolicited help?

In contrast, some potential reviewers never respond to a request a priori for assistance, in spite of repeated queries. However, once agreed, the reviewer should provide his or her comments expediently. There are reviewers who neither provide their comments nor return the copy of the manuscript after agreeing to do the review. That is a total disservice to the authors and to the scientific community. As such things happen, names of the individuals involved are removed from future consideration for requesting help. As one of my colleagues put it, peer review preserves the quality of science and you owe it to your colleagues to be helpful to them. Otherwise, you are doing a disservice to your profession. There have been suggestions by members of some scientific societies to penalize delinquent peer reviewers by delaying their publications and rewarding others, who are diligent and prompt in their obligations, by expediting their papers after acceptance. As a person (speaking for myself) who faces those issues every day, what a refreshing thought for future consideration?

All international journals require manuscripts to be reviewed by two anonymous peers. For example, Editors maintain a directory of scientists and their areas of specialization for use in the process. If the comments from the initial two peer reviewers are contradictory in their nature (happens about 20% of the time), then a third peer reviewer is requested to help, but without providing the benefit of the comments from the first two. It is important to realize that the identities of the peer reviewers are not disclosed to the authors and is a part of the confidentiality of the process to promote scientific integrity.

If the initial two reviewers recommend the paper for publication, but have questions and suggest revisions, then the authors should respond to those by providing an itemized listing of their responses to the Editor in submitting their final or revised version. The Editor always examines the author’s responses to see whether they are satisfactory before accepting a paper.

Some authors do not readily accept peer review comments. Once I was forced into a debate with an author, who essentially informed me that I did not know the subject matter of his paper. The author used data on carbon monoxide concentrations at traffic intersections to discuss carbon dioxide emissions in global climate change.

Peer reviewers are requested to provide constructive, unbiased, but candid comments regarding: (1) Appropriateness of the manuscript content to the mission of the journal, (2) Relevance of the study, (3) Rigor and soundness of the science, (4) Importance of the results in advancing the science, (5) Appropriateness of the methods used and the conclusions reached in addressing the objectives. There are still other criteria.

Many authors seek to publish their papers in the most appropriate and leading journals in their field. Different journals implement peer reviews with different degrees of rigor. Top international journals have manuscript rejection rates of 40-60% of the total number submitted by the authors. That is reflected in the quality of papers published and the established reputation of the journal. An experienced scientist can assess the quality of a publication even without reading it, by simply looking to see where it is published. A manuscript rejected by one journal may appear in another journal that has less rigorous standards or because a different set of peer reviewers were used, who perhaps examined the paper less rigorously. For example, strictly based on scientific reasons, I once rejected a paper twice. At first it was sent to me by one journal and after my rejection, coincidentally it was sent to me again some months later by another journal. After the second rejection, the paper subsequently appeared in a journal that I seldom consult. Thus, without doubt there is a hierarchical order of quality among journals.

It is not uncommon that a paper written by a reputed scientist can be subjected to serious questions from peer reviewers. In such cases, to sustain their reputation, although it might take extra time and effort, the authors generally resubmit their paper for consideration, responding to all of the peer comments,

Some journals also allow resubmission of a paper for the second time after major or significant revisions, for a re-evaluation by the original peer reviewers. Such a process must be approved a priori by the journal Editor. However, that practice is not very common (perhaps 5%) and some journals, do not allow a re-submission.

Publishers themselves use what is known as the “impact factor” to assess the quality of their journals. For example, according to the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), the impact factor of a journal is calculated by dividing the number of current year citations to the source items published in that journal during the previous two years. In that context, for example, Elsevier Science publishes each year, a listing of the most down loaded articles in their journals.

In summary, peer review is usually a constructive process that assures the quality of a work. To be challenged by your peers can only improve the contents of your work and its merit. In a sense, every true democracy in the world has a peer review of its political and socio-economic status by its eligible populous. At the appropriate time, an elected leader is evaluated for his or her performance to be reelected to office or to be rejected.

Prof. Sagar V. Krupa is the Professor of Plant Pathology at the, University of Minnesota Twin City Campus, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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