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Guest post: Can the Global South improve diversity and inclusion in the peer review ecosystem?

By AuthorAID Team | Sept. 14, 2018  |  | General

As part of Peer Review Week, Haseeb Md. Irfanullah, editor of Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy, considers diversity and inclusion. He also shared these thoughts this week in a video as part of a Twitter discussion about peer review.

I find the 300-year old scholarly peer-review system fascinating for the elements of anonymity and altruism. Researchers help each other, often even without knowing each other’s name, and without expecting any direct, immediate, material benefits.

I see peer review as an example of ‘good karma’ − you help a fellow researcher to improve her/his research and research communication, and, in turn, someone else from other side of the world would do the same favour for you when you need it.

In this piece, I explore the importance of diversity and inclusion in peer review, the prevailing and potential challenges with ensuring diversity in peer review and how to overcome those. I will draw upon examples from Bangladesh where I work with fellow journal editors and researchers.

Inclusion and diversity help

My journal Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy (BJPT) was first published in 1994. Despite its regularity, the journal remained rather closed till 2005 publishing almost only research from Bangladeshi authors. Peer review was done exclusively by Bangladeshi researchers, even if the manuscripts were submitted by foreign researchers.

In 2006, the journal opened up. We began sending out numerous emails to potential authors and institutions all over the world. The main purpose was attracting international authors, taking the journal to global readership, and receiving the much-dreamt-of ‘indexing’ and ‘impact factor’ along the way.

To review foreign manuscripts, we started asking each corresponding author to propose three potential reviewers from their disciplines. This created a fantastic pool of reviewers from all over the world to choose from and went beyond the authors’ geographic distribution. In 2010, our journal received its first Impact Factor issued by the ISI (now Clarivate Analytics). In 2015, about 93% of 148 manuscripts submitted came from 23 countries outside of Bangladesh, including 16 Asian countries. This example shows how diversity and inclusion, in this case geographic, in peer review could take a journal to a new height.

They change outlook and culture

Large international reviewership also guided us to certain realizations. Until 2011, we used to pay a token honorarium to Bangladeshi reviewers for their services, in common with other Bangladeshi journals. Given that most of our manuscripts were coming from abroad and were being reviewed by foreign experts, we started arguing: if most of our reviewers were not getting paid for their services, then why should that not be applicable for Bangladeshi reviewers? If reviewing for BJPT is enough incentive for the foreign reviewers that should be true for Bangladesh scholars as well.

In early 2012, we abandoned our 18-year old rule of paying the reviewers. We are now probably one of only a few Bangladeshi journals, if not the only one, which does not pay its reviewers. This story highlights how diversity and inclusion in the peer review system could lead to culture change.

Collective efforts can do wonders

In December 2016, I designed and facilitated a dialogue with 40 Bangladeshi journal editors, organized by the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences with support from the INASP. The purpose of this meeting was to assess where Bangladeshi journals were in terms of international journal publishing standards, what were their challenges, and how to overcome those challenges, both individually and collectively.

We started with defining international publishing standards and, unsurprisingly, having effective peer review system came up as one of the eight standards. These publishing standards were closely aligned with the Journal Publishing Practices and Standards (JPPS), which the INASP has developed and implemented with the African Journals Online (AJOL). The major challenges to have an effective peer review system were inadequate quality reviewers and delayed receipt of reviewer’s comments. And, since most journals pay local reviewers honoraria in Bangladesh, inadequate funding was also mentioned as a challenge.

The ultimate purpose of that dialogue was to develop a roadmap that would help us to work together to change the face of academic journal publishing of Bangladesh. Together, we wanted to see 12 changes through that roadmap. In the case of peer review, the anticipated change was “Sufficient number of good reviewers submit comments on time”. Several action points were suggested to achieve that change.

A couple of suggestions matched with what BJPT did 12 years back: Creating a reviewers pool with local and international experts and engage relevant international experts to review foreign papers. Motivating experienced authors of a journal to serve as reviewers for that journal was also recommended. Capacity development of researchers, particularly the young ones, was suggested to mentor and encourage them to become good reviewers. In addition to payments, incentives, like including good reviewers on the Editorial Board or Advisory Board of the journal, were also suggested.

This dialogue, participated in by senior and younger editors, male and female, and editors from the capital and outside, is a good example of inclusion and diversity at the country level. Such inclusiveness not only helped to understand the challenges, but also supported the identification of solutions for journal publishing in general and for peer review specifically.

Recognizing the reviewers is vital

Despite the continued growth of scientific literature in recent years, finding suitable peer reviewers remains a challenge for journal editors. The editors of the North opening up for the researchers of the South as reviewers could be a way to overcome this challenge from an inclusion point of view. I believe that adequately recognizing reviewers’ contributions is also crucial.

I propose a score or index system for the reviewers, as we have citations, h-index and RG score for the authors. If a researcher reviews for a journal, s/he could get a point that could be linked with the index value or impact factor of the said journal. If a journal does not have any impact factor or is not indexed by any systems, we can decide if s/he could still get a point or not. All these efforts could be linked with the researcher’s ORCID ID.

As the final step, such a score/index system needs to be acknowledged by employers (i.e. universities and institutes) as they do for publishing papers or books and supervizing research students. This could take peer review to a new height that it deserves.

Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is Programme Coordinator of the IUCN Bangladesh Office and Editor of the Bangladesh Journal of Plant Taxonomy. You can also follow him on Twitter (@hmirfanullah).

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

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