Retraction Watch reports on an initiative by the microbiology journal mSphere. Under the new system, the editors no longer take responsibility for inviting peer reviewers to evaluate each manuscript. Instead, the would-be authors are expected to find two reviewers themselves, and to submit the reviews along with their paper.
mSphere call this approach ‘author-initiated peer review‘, but I like to think of it as the “Pick-Your-Own” system.
The new system, we’re told, will make for a faster review process: “Once everything is submitted, the editor has five days to decide if the journal will accept the paper, as-is, or reject it” says mSphere editor Michael Imperiale.
Five days to decision does seem much quicker than the standard peer-review process, which can take many weeks or even months in some cases. But would the new system really save time?
It seems to me that “Pick-Your-Own” wouldn’t actually make peer review faster, it would just change the order in which things happen. Authors will still have to spend time finding reviewers, and then they’ll have to wait for those reviewers to finish writing their reports. The main difference is that the authors, not the editors, would be the ones tasked with coordinating everything.
In other words, I can see why editors would like the new system, as it would mean less work for them – but I can’t see why authors would benefit.
“Ah”, you might say, “but in practice reviewers will write their reviews quicker if they’ve been asked to do so personally by a colleague.”
This may be true, but I don’t think it’s a good thing. As I said in my comment on the Retraction Watch post, the “Pick-Your-Own” approach seems to open the door to all kinds of problematic influences.
Suppose I am Prof. Bigg Cheese, a powerful figure in my field. I want to get my paper published in mSphere. So I find a couple of people from my extensive address book and send them my manuscript along with a note saying “I think you are the perfect person to review this for mSphere!”
Now the recipient of this ‘invitation’ might well feel that it is an offer they can’t refuse. If they decline, they would be snubbing me, Prof. Cheese, which they might not feel in a position to do. Especially if they owed me a favor for whatever reason. And make no mistake, Prof. Cheese’s invitation is a request to write a positive review. Who would want to tell Prof. Cheese to his face that his paper is bad?
It’s true that already under the current system, authors are asked to suggest peer reviewers. However, it is the journal editor who actually contacts potential referees, and the identity of the reviewers is known only to the journal, so they are free to write a negative review (or decline to review) without fear of offending the author.