Peer Review Week 2021: Protecting Knowledge and Building Trust

It’s Peer Review Week, and we are excited to participate with a series of blog posts centered around this year’s theme “Identity in Peer Review”. We’ll start off the series with a reflection by De Gruyter’s Vice President of Global Publishing Tom Clark.

This essay is part of a blog post series centered around “Identity in Peer Review” – the theme of Peer Review Week 2021.

It’s the third week of September, meaning that Peer Review Week is back for the 6th time! From 20 to 24 September 2021, more than 35 scholarly organizations worldwide celebrate the value of peer review by hosting virtual events or publishing subject-related articles.

Naturally, we would not want to miss out on this exciting event, so we prepared a mini-series of blog posts with a specific focus on this year’s theme “Identity in Peer Review”. In the multifaceted series, De Gruyter authors and editors explore the influence of personal and social identity in peer review and make suggestions on how to make the process more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

Before we pass the baton to our authors, however, we would like to get started with a reflection from within De Gruyter. We thus asked Vice President of Global Publishing Tom Clark a few questions about his stance on the significance and future of peer review, as well as about this year’s theme.

We hope you enjoy the interview and that you stay tuned for the other upcoming contributions. Happy Peer Review Week!

What does Peer Review mean to you?

Tom Clark: For me, our purpose as a scholarly publisher is to support scholars regardless of discipline, background or origin in their endeavor to establish the best research. Our mission is to create new opportunities to authenticate, promote, disseminate and protect knowledge. We do this as a service provider and as a partner to our authors and the academic communities that they represent.

The importance of peer review is directly connected to this mission. One of the most important tasks we have as a publisher is to help validate the originality and accuracy of the research that we publish for scholarly interests. In a world of increasing misinformation and declining trust in scientific knowledge, it is our job to make sure that readers can trust in the accuracy and soundness of the research that we publish. Peer review is one proven and particularly important mechanism for doing just that.

So one of our main tasks is to bring together subject experts who are able to ensure our authors and their work is appropriately validated. We have to check that the incoming submissions are the most original and informative that they can possibly be. Admittedly, peer review is not perfect and we need to work constantly to improve this most human centred of assessment mechanisms. That’s why we welcome the manifold discussions during Peer Review Week. To me, peer review is still the gold standard of deciding on whether a manuscript should be published or not. And it’s a process that gives authors guidance outside of their own research interest bubble. Even if a paper is rejected, at least it has been part of an authentic journey that seeks objective improvement.

What are, in your opinion, the most interesting developments in peer-review?

Tom Clark: I think the most interesting development to mention would be alternative peer-review approaches. I’m a massive fan of double-blind peer review because it anonymizes the author, which I think is particularly important to reduce bias. And I believe that open peer review has lots of potential, too. Assuming that the goodwill of academia is to progress great research, open peer review offers exciting new possibilities.

Open peer review exists in many different forms, but what they all have in common is a push for more transparency. Our Open Access journal “Economics”, for instance, calls for community participation: Submissions are made available online as “discussion papers” for at least eight weeks, during which peers can send their comments to the editor. Upon publication, all comments are published alongside the paper. Our blog journal “Public History Weekly” combines traditional double-blind peer review with open peer comments after publication. Other journals, like “Innovative Surgical Science”, only use the double-blind peer review model but still publish reviewer comments and author replies.

As far as books are concerned, we have also experimented with open peer review in the past by making manuscripts available on a designated website and inviting researchers to comment on them. Authors and volume editors really liked the idea, but contributions to the discussion ultimately remained scarce. Time constraints of researchers certainly played a role here. We still think the idea has potential, so this is something we will revisit in the future.

I also do believe that technology, artificial intelligence and the associated data centricity in particular, can help us speed up and improve processes around peer review. Of course, technology is currently used in managing manuscripts. We deploy systems for plagiarism checks, to authenticate images or check the correctness of chemical formulas. But in peer review, the judgment calls are still driven by researchers. In the future though, peer review could be improved by applying tools and algorithms to generate data that will lubricate peer reviewer and editor decisions.

Machine learning tools might also make it easier to find the right reviewer. Imagine a journal editor, who repeatedly invites “Bob”, a seasoned entomologist, “because he really knows all about bugs in the Amazon.” However, maybe algorithms could find a “better Bob” – possibly an emerging 30-year old who has published only five seminal papers and has little traction in the community but is still the best-suited person to judge a paper about this specific bug. I assume that machine learning can help us identify the better decision makers.

What are your thoughts on this year’s theme “Identity in Peer Review”?

Tom Clark: We know that, among other factors, gender, ethnicity and class affect access to resources, careers and chances of publication. Against that background, I believe that double-blind peer review still has a massive role to play. It reduces everything down to the research in hand – in theory at least. Reviewers may have indications of an author’s identity if the bubble of research is very small, but generally it’s a good method to prevent bias.

That said, as a publisher, we also have the responsibility to balance out our editorial boards, so they represent our authorship and society as a whole better and are less homogenous. Since double-blind peer review does not protect against editor bias, we need to improve our guidance to editors to heighten their awareness of the issue. We need to assist editors to ensure that they are giving appropriate and sensitive guidance to, for instance, non-native English speakers, or younger researchers who do not necessarily have the guidance of a mentor in the submission process.

We are aware of these issues. Admittedly, we are not as far as we would like in addressing them. But we have started initiatives in the past months and years to begin that important work. A fantastic group of colleagues has started the Committee on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism, Lived (IDEAL) at De Gruyter that is doing great work. So far, the IDEAL committee has facilitated internal discussions on trans-awareness, women in STEM and academia, hosted an event with Berlin Science Week, and organized a company workshop with an external DEI expert. We have joined the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Joint Commitment for Action on Inclusion and Diversity in Publishing and are trying to learn from other publishers who are on a similar path and are facing similar challenges. Work is also underway to make editorial boards more diverse.

Diversity data collection is another project we are working on. One of our insights studies recently confirmed that we have more female authors in the humanities than in the sciences (which was to be expected). In a separate survey, we also found that during Covid-19, the burden of childcare and family responsibilities mainly fell on women, leading to many female researchers not being able to finish their research as a result. We, as a publisher, have to be very aware of these developments. We are committed to doing everything we can to reduce existing barriers, in peer review, and in the publishing process as a whole. We need to know where people are coming from and what proportion of bias we might be coming across in different research areas. This will help us shape our priorities and policies in the future.

Thank you, Tom!

[Title image by wildpixel via iStock / Getty Images Plus]

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

Tom Clark

Tom Clark is VP of Global Publishing at De Gruyter

Pin It on Pinterest