The Art of the Peer Review

(Part 4 of a 7 part series on the work of an academic journal editor by Staci Zavatarro, Editor-in-Chief at Administrative Theory & Praxis.)

Sending a paper to a journal for peer review is a vulnerable process. You are putting your work out there for critique. Sometimes that feedback is constructive. Other times it can be potentially hurtful. In this next post in the series, I shed light on the review process.

            Researchers must decide where to send papers, and I understand this is not an easy decision. People get mixed advice or sometimes base decisions on rumors of the past (“Oh I heard Journal XYZ does not publish my topic”). As editorial teams change, so too does the direction of the journal. Being aware of that is helpful in deciding where to submit. I cannot say definitely where to send a paper (this was asked on Twitter), but Besancenot, Huynh and Faria (2012) note this is an equilibrium game where editors’ and authors’ goals mesh. Thompson (2007) offers advice for deciding where to send a manuscript, including items such as journal quality and visibility, fit with the aims and scope, and the nature of the work. He also recommends asking peers for advice, which is another good rule of thumb when deciding where to send a manuscript.

            One of the first things that surprised me when I took on the editor position was the challenges in finding peer reviewers. For ATP, research manuscripts are double-blind peer reviewed, meaning the reviewers do not know who wrote the paper and the authors do not know the names of the reviewers[1]. This goes in line with standards set from the Committee on Publishing Ethics. Reviewers might choose to self-disclose, and some journals are moving toward open peer review whereby some names are known (PLOS, 2020) though the efficacy of such models is still debated. For instance, one study found that releasing reviewer names does not necessarily improve review quality (Justice et al, 1998).

            In my last post of this series, I covered editorial boards. I consider the ATP editorial board members content-area experts who review papers to ensure they fit with our aims and scope. Editors have to find subject-matter experts for each paper that makes it to the peer review stage. Sometimes editors might desk reject a paper, meaning it does not go forward for peer review at that journal and authors are free to send their papers to another journal. (For a detailed explanation of peer reviewing, see Hall et al (2019).) Feeney, Carson and Dickinson (2018, p. 47) explain: “In sum, journal editors set the priorities and preferences for what will be reviewed and by whom and, ultimately, what gets published. These decisions have an important impact beyond simply the quality of scientific discussion within a particular field.”

            Wellington and Nixon (2005) describe the journal process as a tightly coupled ecological system. The idea of authors, editors, and readers working in concert makes sense, and if one aspect breaks down, the changes might throw off stasis (Wellington & Nixon, 2005). Reviewers are there to ensure the paper meets the rigor required of our discipline and journal. Finding reviewers really is that difficult because journals require between 2 and 4 reviewer per paper.

            Why is it so challenging? People are overworked, being pulled toward other academic duties limiting time for peer review (Fox, Albert & Vines, 2017). There are more journals, thus shrinking a reviewing pool (Besancenot, Huynh & Vranceanu, 2011). The process is free usually, as in reviewers are not compensated for their time. (Predatory journals are another subject matter.) Peer review is subjective (Smith, 2006). We are often not trained in school how to do viable peer reviews. For now, the system is the best we have to ensure confidence in findings (Eisenhart, 2002), though sometimes errors slip through. Sometimes I have to ask handfuls of people before I have our required number of reviewers. This holds up the ecological process noted above.

            If you are interested in peer reviewing, sign up on any journal’s electronic manuscript management system. You can also alert the editor you have signed up so they can keep you in mind for future review requests. Building up a strong review portfolio also can improve your chances of being invited to serve on an editorial board. Sometimes you need to be proactive in this process as well to help editors.

            In the next post, I detail some ways to respond to reviewers.

References

Besancenot, D., Huynh, K.V. & Faria, J.R. (2012). Search and research: The influence of editorial boards on journals’ quality. Theory and Decision, 73, 687-702.

Besancenot, D., Huynh, K.V. & Vranceanu, R. (2011). A matching model of the academic publication market. Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 167(4), 708-725.

Eisenhart, M. (2002). The paradox of peer review: Admitting too much or allowing too little? Research in Science Education, 32, 241-255.

Feeney, M.K., Carson, L. & Dickinson, H. (2019). Power in editorial positions: A feminist critique of public administration. Public Administration Review, 79(1), 46-55.

Fox, C.W., Albert, A.Y.K. & Vines, T.H. (2017). Recruitment of reviewers is becoming harder at some journals: A test of the influence of reviewer fatigue at six journals in ecology and evolution. Research Integrity and Peer Review, 2(3), 1-6.

Hall, J. et al (2019). The art of peer reviewing: Toward an effective developmental process. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 25(3), 296-313.


Smith, R. (2006). Peer review: a flawed process at the heart of science journals. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99, 178-182.

Thompson, P. J. (2009). How to choose the right journal for your manuscript?. Chest, 132(3), 1073–1076. Wellington, J. & Nixon, J. (2005). Shaping the field: the role of academic journal editors in the construction of education as a field of study. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 26(5), 643-655.


[1] For a more detailed discussion, Baruch et al (2008) have put together an excellent primer on journal editorship.

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