The world of academic publishing is experiencing a peer review crisis. Scholars, especially those on the academic job market and on the tenure track, are desperate to get their work reviewed and published. But peer reviewers, on which scholarly publishing depends, are overwhelmed and exhausted. Manuscripts are languishing for months as journal and press editors seek reviewers. Some of my colleagues report asking more than a dozen potential reviewers before finding anyone who can do it.
Since academic peer review has traditionally taken place within what could be described as a gift economy—and is thus unpaid or only nominally remunerated—it is one of the first areas of academic labor to fall by the wayside when scholars get busy, especially at academic journals. In 2021, the problem had become severe enough that Science published an article proposing a uniform $450 payment to reviewers of scientific journal articles (see a rebuttal here).
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on academic lives, the manuscripts continue to pile up. Here I offer a modest proposal to address the problem: adopt crisis standards of peer review.
Peer review in a crisis
In response to the crushing demands placed on hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) defined crisis standards of care that include, first and foremost, a duty to care for those in need. This duty would also be balanced with a duty to steward resources and the need for proportionality so that “burdens should be commensurate with need and appropriately limited in time and scale.”
While the crisis in academic publishing is nowhere near commensurate with the healthcare crisis caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, crisis standards of care could provide an instructive model. What might crisis of standards of peer review look like? And would establishing such standards transparently with peer reviewers at this moment help resolve this crisis?
Triaging peer review
As an initial gambit, one might apply a triage approach to peer review. A reviewer can usually tell in a matter of minutes—an hour at most—which submissions are going to be accepts (or accepts with minor revisions) and which are definite rejects.
One crisis standard of peer review would be for journal editors to explicitly tell reviewers that they expect them to spend no more than one hour on an article review and expect them simply to indicate whether a submission is publishable, is not publishable, or would require additional time and thought to evaluate.
The third option is essential because an hour may end up notbeing enough time to even make a triage-level decision. In that case, the manuscript would then get returned to the journal editor to decide whether to reject or seek a more detailed revise-and-resubmit-style review.
More reviewers might be willing to take on a peer review request if journal editors made some explicit and transparent adjustments to expectations during this time of crisis.
For their part, journal editors would only have to undertake for a portion of the submissions the more exhaustive process of finding a reviewer willing to commit to a more extensive review, rather than having to do so for all submissions. They would also need to rely less on desk rejection to process manuscripts, since the triage process would provide support on that front.
Revise and resubmits
For revise-and-resubmits, journal editors could expedite the evaluation process by giving reviewers more specific requests for feedback, possibly via a form, that would prevent reviewers from having to craft mini-essays in response to a manuscript. Some reviewers, of course, may find upon reading that they’d like to respond at greater length or provide more detail. Obviously, they should be allowed to provide that useful feedback if they wish.
The current standard of detailed feedback using free-response evaluation forms was developed to prevent gatekeeping and elicit thorough review. Such a standard has made peer review much more useful and more humane. We certainly don’t want to do away with this process: Reviewer 2 is still with us and still needs to be stopped.
But at this time of crisis, the universal application of thorough review can prevent basic work from getting done, to the detriment of individual scholars and scholarship as a whole.
Journal editors’ primary duty is to care for authors: scholars need their work reviewed, now. Academic careers are dying because manuscripts are not getting reviewed. Journal editors’ secondary duty is to their reviewers, who are both exhausted and being asked to provide additional, financially uncompensated labor.
Peer review is a precondition of scholarly publishing; without it, scholarship dies. Taking some of the measures proposed here can conserve valuable resources.
To the reviewers
What if you’re a reviewer instead of a journal editor? Can you impose your own crisis standards of peer review?
To this I would say: Why not? Keep in mind that a quick rejection may be kinder to a scholar than a revise-and-resubmit that never comes. A rejection, after all, will allow a scholar to submit the work elsewhere. (A kind reviewer or journal editor might thoughtfully suggest where.)
The importance of transparency
Regardless of whether you’re a journal editor or a reviewer, it’s essential to be transparent about what you’re doing and why. The times we’re in demand redress, but it’s important to be thoughtful about what form that redress should take and to name it as part of a crisis-driven intervention.
Peer review, like any gift economy, relies on mutual beneficence to function. Being honest and transparent can go a long way to both foster collegiality and work through this crisis together.