Controversial Aspects of Peer-Review

Peer-review is a fundamental part of academic publishing that determines the fate of every article, and oftentimes, plays an important role in the journal’s success.
The primary purpose of peer-review is assessing paper submissions and deciding which papers to publish. It involves not only the technical aspects and general quality of the articles but more importantly their relevance, novelty, and significance to the field and to the readers.

Popular journals receive much more submissions than they can realistically publish, that’s why it’s important that peer-review filters out the less suitable articles and either returns them back to authors for revision (if they bear significance but still need adjustments) or reject them altogether, thus making space for suitable submissions.

In our previous articles, we were defining the role of peer-review and its purpose in academic publishing. With this article, we are going to focus on some of the main drawbacks of peer review and see why it’s sometimes considered to be one of the problematic aspects of scholarly publishing.

The Main Drawbacks of Peer-Review

Being a peer-reviewer is not the easiest job. The referees are required to have a sound professional background that falls within the journal’s academic scope as well as the actual experience in the peer-review in order to provide the authors with reliable and professional reviews. Unfortunately, in reality, this process is sometimes flawed as referees can be biased and highly competitive.

Based on the recent years’ surveys and findings presented in STM report (2018 STM: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, 5th Edition, 2018 October), and the International Orthopaedics (SICOT) publication The good, the bad and the rude peer-review (2020), the most controversial aspects of peer-review could be listed as follows:

  • Non-objective review. Based on the referee’s subjective opinion about the author, the comments are directed to authors rather than their article.
  • Non-informative review. Inexperienced reviewers fail to notice important flaws in the paper, their reviews are poorly written and non-organized.
  • Unfair and biased review. The reviewer’s comments are overly negative, unhelpful, based on prejudices, and sometimes even offensive, with noticeable bias against the nationality, gender, or opposing views of the author.
  • Conflict of interest. Some reviewers fail to disclose the conflict of interest and to demonstrate transparency.
  • Rude, unprofessional review. The reviewer abuses their anonymity status and provides an unethical, unprofessional review based on their subjective opinion about the author rather than the quality of their manuscript.

Open vs. Anonymous Review: The Main Concerns

It is more likely for the previously mentioned flaws of peer-review to emerge in an anonymously conducted review as it provides the anonymity shield and may enable rude, unprofessional, unobjective behavior in referees. It can demean the authors and as a result, discourage them from further progress.

This is the reason why many scholars prefer and advocate for open peer reviews. It’s believed to force referees to maintain a more ethical and professional approach to peer-review and focus on the researches rather than the authors themselves.

On the other hand, even though open peer-review is more beneficial to the authors, it may pose some difficulties to their publishers. Some surveys show that academically acclaimed referees refuse to review the manuscripts if their names are revealed to the public. Some suggest that only a small portion of reviewers who provide negative reviews are willing to have their identities revealed, especially when it comes to young reviewers “criticizing” their seniors.

Nonetheless, the support and appreciation for transparent and open reviews have been steadily growing in the last years, with academic community members becoming more enthusiastic in both receiving and providing open reviews to their colleagues.

What Can Be Done

Peer review should be conducted in a professional, ethical, polite, and collegial spirit. The rules for an appropriate peer review process are usually indicated in every journal’s guidelines, policies, and codes. In some cases, journals may assign special editors who additionally overview the finished peer review and suspend it if it’s considered pervasive, rude, or unprofessional. At the moment, this option is considered the best compromise for publishers who are in doubt about choosing either an anonymous or open review.


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