The email with “Invitation to review” in the subject line arrives; you quickly scan down the email identifying the “Decline invitation” link; you click the link; the invitation is consigned to history, never to trouble you again.

Peer review is central to so much that we in academia do. Every manuscript we submit is subject to peer review; so is every funding application, every studentship application, and every high level application for promotion. Peer review is core to academic business. We should engage more with it. I spent seven years as Editor in Chief of the British Journal of Nutrition. I am currently an Associate Editor at Journal of Nutrition, Clinical Science and Clinical Nutrition. Much of the time spent in these roles is in identifying peer reviewers.

As I go around conferences, I meet many other journal editors. The most common topics of discussion are open access, the ever increasing number of manuscripts being submitted and the difficulty in finding peer reviewers. Failure to engage in the peer review process reduces the pool of available reviewers and slows down the entire process of manuscript and grant application handling. Everyone suffers as a result. I believe that peer review should be a collective effort: so long as we have the peer review system as a core element underpinning academic endeavour, we must engage and engage fully.

Beyond this very practical consideration, there are some other aspects of peer review to also think about. Peer reviewing can be educational: a reviewer can learn a lot from a manuscript or funding application and this can contribute to the reviewers own scholarship and research. Peer review is an opportunity for standard setting: the peer reviewer is a gate keeper acting on behalf of the discipline to ensure that things are as they should be. Peer review also provides an enormous opportunity to influence others positively: to influence the experimental work, the presentation style, the interpretation. This may not just affect the authors or the funding applicants, but ultimately can help to shape the entire field. This is a powerful component of discipline leadership through peer review: any single manuscript may be read by thousands, or even tens of thousands, of other researchers once it is published. Thus, the fruits of the influence of the peer reviewer are multiplied many times over. Finally, peer review puts the reviewer in a place of great privilege, which is quite unique. In peer reviewing a manuscript for publication, the reviewer is amongst the very first to see the data and to read the interpretation. In peer reviewing an application for funding, the reviewer is amongst the first to read the applicant’s ideas and to see the pilot data. This privilege should be cherished.

Despite the arguments outlined above, many see little reward from engaging in peer review and for the time spent in doing so. This is recognised by journals and different systems of reward are now offered by an increasing number of journals and publishers. These include things like discounts on open access fees and on book purchases, CV endorsement and schemes involving collection of points to be redeemed at a later stage. Some publishers are even considering cash payment for peer review. That may seem attractive, but the cost would likely be passed on to the author and I see issues with peer review quality: does a better quality review earn more money?

In my next blog, I will discuss further why peer review as we currently know it is doomed and share my vision of the future of scientific publishing. In the meantime, remember that, as your cursor hangs over “Decline invitation”, at another university in an office just like yours someone has just received an invitation to review YOUR manuscript and they too hold the cursor above “Decline invitation”.

Philip C. Calder

Professor of Nutritional Immunology

Human Development & Health Academic Unit

In Praise of Peer Review

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