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Have the 2010s been good for peer review?

How has peer review fared in the 2010s? We outline some key trends that have helped to define, challenge, and progress the peer review system over the past decade.

A lot can happen in ten years -- take the beginnings of Publons, for instance.

The company was little more than a bold idea in 2010. Cofounders Andrew Preston and Daniel Johnston came up with the concept for Publons while Andrew was doing postdoctoral research at Boston University. The pair made it official two years later and, by 2019, the platform has five million reviews, two million researchers, and 5,000 journal integrations from 250+ publishing partners.

We have a lot of achievements to celebrate at Publons during this time, but we’ve met many challenges, too. The same goes for peer review.

As the decade comes to an end we thought it was a good time to take stock of how peer review has fared in the 2010s, and call out some of the advancements that have been made to meet its various (and in some cases, ongoing) challenges.

As a quick warning: the list below is neither exhaustive nor extensive. For a full insight into how peer review looks today, check out our Global State of Peer Review (2018) and Grant Review in Focus (2019) reports.

Here's the fresh-faced Publons team back in 2013. Cofounders Andrew Preston and Daniel Johnston are sitting in the middle of the group.

7 positive trends in peer review in the 2010s

Recognition: There’s been a dramatic scale-up of the recognition for peer review movement, allowing for more researchers to have their efforts acknowledged in funding and promotion applications.

Training: Numerous training programs have been developed to better equip and motivate the next generation of reviewers, including Nature’s Masterclass, ACS Reviewer Lab, the Elsevier Researcher Academy, and our very own Publons Academy.

Vetting: New tools have been developed to better identify, verify, and invite peer reviewers, with a focus on closely matching expertise with the research being reviewed.

Transparency: New and different models of peer review have started to come to the fore, particularly those that increase transparency. New initiatives have also been developed to bring more transparency to peer review (and co-reviewing) policies.

Peer review technology: New tools (including statcheck, Seek & Blastn and ScholarOne’s Unusual Activity Detection tool) have been developed to help journals identify fake reviews and fraudulent images in research.

Research and reports: Peer review has been reviewed in a number of research papers and global reports, which has brought a new level of transparency to the system. Work here includes the SpotOn report, the Global State of Peer Review and Grant Review in Focus reports, and the variety of work at PEERE.

Increasing input from emerging countries: Contributions to peer review from emerging economies are shown to be on the rise, with researchers from China and elsewhere more likely to accept a peer review request than established countries.

3 ongoing challenges in peer review

It hasn’t been all smooth-sailing, of course, and many inefficiencies underlie these positive trends in peer review, often driven by the nature of the “publish or perish” world we live in.

Rising submission rates: Rapidly increasing submission rates in the 2010s (and earlier) has resulted in massive demand for qualified, motivated, and trustworthy reviewers. This work often falls on a small cohort of reviewers, who in turn have become harder and harder to find.

Fraudulent reviews and predatory publishers: Hundreds of fraudulent reviews have been exposed since 2014, which undermines the efforts of genuine reviewers and fractures the public’s trust in research. It also connects with the rise of predatory publishers, which has become a bigger concern in the 2010s with the growth of Open Access journals. You can read the recent consensus on a definition of predatory journals, here.

Lack of diversity: A multitude of factors (including unconscious bias) has contributed to a lack of gender and geographic diversity, as well as other inequities in scholarly publishing and peer review. While advancements have been made in this area (the American Geophysical Union published valuable research on this topic in early 2017), the challenge continues.

Peer review in the 2020s

A key reason for creating Publons back in 2012 was to help researchers get recognition for their tireless, and often hidden peer review work. The system is not perfect, but peer review contributions remain crucial in helping us trust, understand, and communicate research. And, while innovation (especially around transparency) is clearly needed, findings in both our recent large-scale peer review reports show that most funders, journal editors, and researchers continue to regard peer review as a critical tool for evaluating research and ensuring the quality and integrity of the literature.

For this reason and more, Publons has and will continue to work hard to find ways to improve the peer review process. Make sure you stay tuned for our announcements in this space by subscribing to our mailing list using the form below, and by following us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Here’s to the future of peer review and the start of an exciting new decade in scholarly research 🍻🤖

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