Dr Ismael Kimirei, Centre Director for Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) shares his thoughts and experiences of peer review as part of our Peer Review Week series.
What are your experiences of peer review?
I understand that science cannot be advanced without the works of peer reviewers. My works have been reviewed by others and have been improved through the process. If that is what it takes to get quality scientific products to the consumers/peers/readers, then I too will do it for the same reason that whoever reviewed my works had in mind.
As an author I once had a paper receive seven rejections before it got published. I think one of those rejections was based on a disagreement between the editor and my former supervisor (gut feeling), while the other six said the paper was just “not wide enough to fit into our journal”. Finally, we sent it to a journal which was very focused and received six reviewers’ comments! It took some time to revise but it got published. Even then, one reviewer wanted us to have used their ways of analysing non-parametric data. If it hadn’t been for the editor accepting our rebuttal, I am sure that that would have been the eighth rejection and maybe I would have given up!
Since then, I have reviewed for many journals, for journals under Elsevier and Springer, as well as others that are published by either universities or professional bodies but not affiliated with major publishing houses.
What challenges do you see with peer review today and what could be done to improve it?
As a reviewer, I have received poorly written articles. The main problem was the language and I had to struggle to get it straightened out because the science was good. My advice to authors is to clearly edit your papers before they are submitted. Sometimes I receive manuscripts that are clearly very early drafts that would have been improved through internal reviews. Several times I have received review requests with a Portuguese abstract [I’m Tanzanian]!
Sometimes I finish a review and never get a message of acknowledgement for it. I complained once, but now as an Academic Editor myself, I understand the pressure that editors are subjected to in clearing manuscripts off their desks! Of course, we can do better. One way would be to have many academic editors and only allow a specific number of manuscripts to hand in a week.
Another challenge is that the number of manuscripts submitted to journals is sure to increase with the increasing number of scientists, especially from Asia (China, India) and other African countries. The number of Chinese researchers submitting to international English-language journals is increasing very fast. This is going to bring many issues, including the possibility of authors translating papers that have already been published (for example, in Chinese journals) into English and then receiving double credit on the same material. I think there could be a need in the editing and peer review process for improving checks so that we don’t duplicate efforts on the same materials.
As an author, a challenge is that sometimes reviews are late. I think it is because of the challenges to get reviewers to agree to review. It is important that whoever is approached to review a manuscript either accepts or declines as soon as possible to shorten the time that editors have to wait to get the manuscripts reviewed. I would like to call on junior and early-career scientists/researchers to take up the challenge and learn how to do rigorous reviews. There are many areas where they can get help, such as the webinars and courses organized by Elsevier, PLoS One, and Publons Academy. Also, I call upon INASP/AuthorAID to organize MOOCs to equip researchers from the Global South to conduct reviews. I believe this can be a better avenue to get a more diverse reviewers’ community.
Another challenge is caused by the anonymity of reviewers. Sometimes reviewers push their beliefs or preferences on authors. For example, if the statistical method used to analyse data is not as the reviewer would like, even if the method used is correct, some reviewers require that their preferences be granted. As I said earlier, I once nearly had a manuscript rejected based on this issue.
Journals should implement total transparency in the review process and maybe start by publishing review reports while transiting to crediting reviewers by adding their names on the respective papers. That way reviewers will be more responsible and maybe they will be open to new ideas or opposite views.
You can find out more about Ismael's work via these online profiles:
Peer Review Week is a global event celebrating the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The theme of Peer Review Week 2018 is “Diversity and Inclusion” and aims to explore a wide range of issues and challenges that this topic presents within peer review. It is running from 10–15 September 2018 with activities taking place around the globe. For more information, see https://peerreviewweek.wordpress.com