Disclaimer: this review was written by a human being, and may include opinions, mistakes, and biases. Take it with a grain of salt.

I was just mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, when I bumped into a tweet that inspired today’s blog post. I usually like to include the original tweet when I am inspired to write about it, but since this one is a poll, the editor in WordPress will not accept it. Messes up my entire post. Argh. Click the link above to find the original tweet, or read on, if you don’t trust my linking on here, to find a lengthy description that makes you wonder how the author managed to put it all in 280 characters.

The tweet was one posted by Jonathan Chase, editor-in-chief of Ecology letters, a prestigious ecological journal. The tweet indicated that the journal recently made the switch to transparent peer review, where reviews can be published if the authors wish to do so. Apparently, there has been a bit of pushback from some reviewers. Hence, the tweet included a poll asking if this policy would make you more or less likely to review, or if you’re indifferent.

I opted for the latter. I couldn’t care less. But I find it interesting to think about it, and am intrigued that other people do care. (There’s no judgement here, just curiosity.)

I’ve seen quite some discussion lately about this issue. It appears that quite some people have strong opinions on the existence of transparent peer review. Two thoughts arise with me immediately, when I think of the concept of transparent review. First, why would you care to read the reviews? Don’t you have something better to do? I would personally never see myself do it. I hardly have time to read the full paper, let alone pages of reviews and rebuttals. The second thought rises naturally from the first. If no one will read these reviews, why would you care at all about whether they are made available or not? I guess I’m really quite indifferent to it.

I’m a simple guy and have pretty simplistic views on reviewing. Academia is already complex enough. I like some things to be simple. As a reviewer, I see it as my role to give my opinion, and suggestions on how a manuscript could be improved. That’s my simple definition. I don’t care much about what the authors decide to do with my suggestions. That’s not my job as a reviewer. I mean, after all, a review is only a series of thoughts and opinions. They may very well be incorrect. I, for one, am quite happy to find my reviews countered. Even if my thoughts appear irrelevant, my review will still have contributed to a critical reassessment of the manuscript by the authors, who are the true experts when it comes to their work after all…

Which makes me wonder. Have we somehow elevated the peer review process to some form of divine judgment? It seems so. The sometimes endless rounds of revisions quite clearly illustrate this. Somehow the power to decide – which in my opinion should lie solely with the editors – has shifted a lot to the reviewers. Peer review has become something of a quest to meet every reviewer’s last remark, sometimes to even very silly levels.

Don’t get me wrong though. I think reviewer’s suggestions generally make work better. But! I’ve seen so many instances where the later rounds were almost counterproductive, or were filled with a set of additional, nitpicky, or silly comments, because, well, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? No!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go back to a system where editors take a decision after one round of revisions, and then go through a round of editorial suggestions? Yeah, yeah, I get it, that takes a lot of time for editors. I know. So what? That’s the editorial job. And it’s a lame excuse. There’s plenty of people, both more and less experienced, that are perfectly willing to do this job for free. Otherwise, pay them?

Can we stop making reviewer satisfaction (at any cost) the end goal? Reviewers can be wrong, make mistakes, have opinions, and be biased. They’re humans, not demigods.

I don’t know, I think it may help to keep that in mind when you review, or decide to spend (waste?) time on reading a transparent review, or decide to decline to review because they will be transparent reviews.

(Maybe reviews should come with some disclaimer?)

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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