What Types of Peer Review Are Common in Journal Publishing?
Peer review practices have always varied to some degree among scholarly journals, and there have been many recent developments in peer reviewing as journal editors and managers attempt to improve their methods for both authors and reviewers while maintaining the highest academic and scientific standards. To understand exactly how the paper you are submitting for publication will be reviewed, you will therefore need to consult the targeted journal’s website. Peer-reviewed journals usually describe their practices at least briefly, and all the more if anything about their techniques is unique or especially innovative. This discussion of the different peer review practices covers the methods used by most scientific and academic journals to assess and validate the research they publish. It is designed to clarify for scholarly authors the more recent and unusual as well as the most common and traditional approaches to peer reviewing on the basis that authors armed with greater knowledge are better able to prepare their manuscripts for a constructive peer review process leading to successful publication.
There are essentially two kinds of peer reviews – closed and open. In a closed review the identities of reviewers and perhaps authors are concealed; in an open review the identities of authors and reviewers are revealed. Closed reviews are more traditional among scholarly journals and they remain the most common, but not all closed reviews are alike. Some journals use single-blind reviewing practices, whereas others prefer a double-blind approach. Both methods have been in use for a long time, but each has weaknesses as well as strengths.
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In single-blind peer reviews the identity of the author is known to the reviewer, but the identity of the reviewer is not revealed to the author. The idea is that a reviewer can assess a research paper most effectively by knowing as much as possible, including who the author is and thus something about his or her previous publications. Although authors often do a lot of guessing about who their reviewers might be, the anonymity of a reviewer theoretically increases the professionalism of the process by allowing a sincere evaluation of the manuscript without the reviewer feeling anxious about generating personal resentment or retaliation from the author if the review is not positive. The problem is that reviewers are human with their own perspectives, so knowing who the author is raises the possibility of reviewer bias associated with the author’s nationality, gender, affiliation or other factors. A reviewer can delay or entirely prevent the publication of an excellent paper by a researcher considered a competitor or recommend a poor paper for publication without careful enough scrutiny simply because it was written by a prestigious scholar.
Double-blind reviews are seen by advocates as a means of preventing these problems. As in a single-blind approach, the reviewer’s identity is hidden from the author, but a double-blind reviewing process also requires the author’s identity to be hidden from the reviewer. This can only be achieved if the author prepares the manuscript with extreme care, following all of the journal’s instructions for removing any traces of personal identity from every file submitted. Even when this is completely successful, however, the research content and writing style can tell a reviewer who the author is, especially in smaller and more specialised fields of study. In addition, a reviewer need not know the author’s identity to comment inappropriately on content that might undermine his or her own similar research, so double-blind reviewing cannot eliminate professional ambition or the possibility of a reviewer preventing or delaying the publication of a paper for the wrong reasons. It can, however, prevent decisions based more on who wrote the paper than on what it contains.
Open reviews are entirely different because both the author and the reviewer know the identity of the other. Open peer reviews can be conducted in exactly the same way as closed reviews usually are – that is, with a journal editor acting as a mediator between author and reviewer while suggestions are made and revisions completed. Open reviews of this kind are considered preferable to blind reviews by those who find major faults with traditional methods, and more academic and scientific journals than ever are now experimenting with open reviews. There can be problems with this approach as well, however, with some arguing that reviewers might be reluctant to share sincere criticism that necessitates revisions or prevents publication for fear of resentment or retaliation from a disgruntled author. Since many peer reviewers are early-career scholars with a great deal to lose if they step on the wrong toes, there is a serious potential for compromised reviews, and given that emerging scholars tend to be particularly thorough and conscientious reviewers, the pattern could be detrimental to scholarly publishing as a whole. On the other hand, open reviews render reviewers more accountable for their opinions and recommendations and can increase the rigour, quality and general civility of peer reviews.
Heated debate over the value of the peer review process has inspired some academic and scientific journals to experiment in interesting ways with variants on the traditionally structured scholarly review. Collaborative reviews, for instance, have the peer reviewers of a paper working as a team, discussing the manuscript and research, considering the others’ opinions, benefitting from their expertise and submitting a single report and recommendation. This kind of review can be either open or closed, with the author knowing the identities of the reviewers or not, and it can certainly help reduce conflictive reviewer suggestions for editors and authors to consider and resolve. The danger, of course, is the potential for losing the independent thought and unique opinions of each expert if, for instance, the views of a dominant personality or senior reviewer prevail over different but equally valid views, or a busy scholar decides to leave the reviewing work to his or her younger colleagues.
Interactive reviews are a twist on the collaborative model and are also a fairly recent development. In this scenario the author and usually one reviewer, though it could be more, work together to correct and improve a manuscript and, if necessary, the research behind it until the work is deemed publishable. I suppose this method could be closed were a journal editor to pass correspondence back and forth between an unnamed reviewer and author, but ideally such an open approach is also open in terms of identities. The relationship between reviewer and author is a professional one with shades of mentor–student dynamics, and the ideal is that cooperative teamwork will overcome some of the more competitive and undesirable impulses that can arise in traditional reviewing practices, enable successful publications by emerging scholars and help produce better scholarship overall. There could be additional problems, of course, with the lines between evaluating and authoring becoming blurred, but some reviewers and authors will find such a direct collaborative approach particularly constructive.
Post-publication reviews have traditionally been associated more with scientific and academic monographs than with journal articles, but in recent years post-publication reviewing of journal papers has emerged, and this, too, employs an interactive structure. When a monograph is reviewed in the usual manner after publication, the goal is to assess the work and inform readers; requesting or inspiring changes is not usually part of the process. When a journal paper undergoes post-publication review, however, the goals are usually akin to traditional prepublication peer review. The paper may or may not have already been peer reviewed in a more conventional way before it is published on the journal’s website and it may or may not have been formally copyedited or typeset, but it will always have undergone editorial review. It is then subject to peer review, perhaps by reviewers chosen and invited by the journal editor or maybe by volunteers who offer to review the article. The precise methods vary, but there are usually some criteria for being a reviewer, and comments and judgements are generally posted or published alongside the paper. The author then has the opportunity or is required to respond and revise in a process that merges review and reception, creates an active scholarly dialogue and can hasten publication. This is open peer review with a wide-angle lens, and while the public exposure can mean that everyone is on their best behaviour, unfortunately, it can also inspire just the opposite.
One more innovation in peer review practices takes place in the offices of larger publishers connected to more than one journal and is worth mentioning. The editor considering a manuscript may, after assessing the paper and the comments of peer reviewers, decide that the research and paper would be a better fit for another journal in the publisher’s family and transfer both manuscript and reviews, with the author’s permission, to the appropriate editor of that journal. This can be good for the author, who is given another publishing option for a paper that would otherwise have been rejected, and it can speed up the publication process and take a little pressure off reviewers by eliminating the need for another round of peer reviews if the second journal decides to accept it. However, there is usually no guarantee that the paper will be published by the second journal or even of interest to the editor, and the practice could provide an easy but ultimately unproductive solution for an editor who is facing difficult decisions or the prospect of working with an author and reviewers through challenging revisions.
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