Faced with a deluge of papers, journal editors are struggling to find willing peer reviewers.
In November 2022, health economist Chris Sampson found himself in desperate need of a hero. As associate editor for Frontiers in Health Services, he’d been trying to get a paper reviewed since April. He’d sent out about 150 invitations to potential reviewers and received four reviews, but only one of sufficient quality to be useful. Sampson, who works at the Office of Health Economics, a research and consultancy company based in London, needed two more good reviews, so he tweeted: “I need a #peerreview hero … Heroes, DM me.”
The sheer size and growth rate in the number of academic titles is overwhelmingly and exhausting. The rapid pace of new papers, driven in no small part by the academic dictate to “publish or perish” has mutated science into something cheap and ugly. In this context, it’s really no surprise that it is so hard to find peer reviewers. The growing reluctance of academics to conduct reviews can’t be helped by the fact there is rarely recognition or even acknowledgement for the time taken to conduct a quality reviews. This also isn’t helped by the massive profits made by the major titles with them paying the authors and reviewers who have made their success possible. This Nature piece looks at some of the experiences and terrible state of affairs.
Balazs Aczel is a psychologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest who studies the processes of science. Using a data set covering more than 87,000 scholarly journals, Aczel and his colleagues estimated that researchers globally, in aggregate, spent the equivalent of more than 15,000 years on peer review in 2020 alone2. And many scientists are declining to review more frequently. On Clarivate’s ScholarOne, a manuscript-tracking platform that helps to organize reviews for more than 8,000 academic journals, the average rate at which scientists accept a review dropped from 37.5% in 2020 to 32.3% in 2022.
Pandemic burnout seems to have exacerbated the problem. A poll of Nature readers last November (the results of which will be reported later this month) found that about one-third had reduced their reviewing activity since March 2020. Senior and mid-career researchers, who perform the bulk of peer reviews, were most likely to cut back.