Although the peer review process has undergone fire over the past decade or so, it remains a fundamental component of academic publishing. It serves two primary purposes: gatekeeping or determining whether a submitted manuscript has enough merit to be published in a particular journal, and improving the quality of the research and the writing. There is a lot of disagreement over which role is more important, even to the point of some calling for doing away with the improvement function. Here’s an overview of what concerns researchers, editors, and publishers.
Maintaining the integrity of the journal is the goal of the gatekeeping function in peer review. Gatekeeping acts as a filter so that only high quality research is published in reputable journals. The reviewer makes sure the study is original, valid, and significant, and the paper is within the publication’s scope. Based on his or her analysis, the peer reviewer will recommend to a journal editor that the manuscript should be accepted as is, accepted after some modifications, or rejected.
Although this filtering process is invaluable to maintain integrity in scientific inquiry and prevent faulty research from contributing to the body of scientific knowledge, it does have a couple of inherent problems. For example, research that challenges or contradicts currently accepted understanding could get rejected without adequate consideration of its validity, or because of bias by a reviewer who sees the study as a threat to his or her own research or career.
The manuscript improvement function
Here, the peer reviewer assesses the research paper and makes suggestions that will make the published article better than the submitted manuscript. He or she will examine the literature review, context, methodology, data, results, discussion, and conclusions to look for completeness, flaws, and oversights. The reviewer can also look at the writing and language, but this is usually considered secondary because editors can fix the writing in the later stages of the publication process.
Peer reviewers should make sure their comments are constructive, as well as courteous and respectful. They should also back up their recommendations with clear explanations.
Reducing interference between the two functions of peer review
Which of the two functions of peer review is considered the most important? The author of Reconciling the Two Functions of Peer Review argues that the manuscript improvement role is more important, saying that most articles will eventually be published somewhere, so improving them is the most beneficial to the academic literature. Others believe that comments and critiques might sway an editor into rejecting a manuscript that probably could benefit the literature. They would prefer just a simple thumbs up or down, without cluttering the decision with recommendations for revisions. So, how can editors and reviewers lessen the effects of the interference between these two functions?
Unless the editor specifically requests a simple yes or no, perhaps for expediency or to resolve a conflict between two reviewers, peer reviewers should make every effort to make a manuscript better. A careful, thoughtful, and constructive critique will help your fellow author produce better work and assist the editor in publishing a better final article that upholds the quality standards of the publication.
To reduce the threat of having your comments influence the editor’s acceptance or rejection, make sure you are clear in your recommendation to publish (or not), and prioritize your comments so that suggestions are clear and critical revisions are clearly defined as such.
Although reviewers should not have direct contact with authors, the editor should mediate discussions between the two to clarify the priority of specific requests, suggest areas that can be strengthened, and overrule reviewer recommendations that he or she disagrees with or are beyond the study’s scope.
Simply being aware of the possible conflicts between the two functions can go a long way in reducing them. Both gatekeeping and manuscript improvement are essential to producing high quality articles that advance scientific knowledge and maintain the integrity of academic research.