Peer Review Week 2021

Peer Review Week (PRW) is an inter­na­tion­al event that recog­nises and cel­eb­rates the essen­tial role of peer review in main­tain­ing qual­ity in aca­dem­ic pub­lish­ing. This year, it runs from Septem­ber 20 to 24. Our soci­ety journ­al depends on the hard work of review­ers who eval­u­ate and improve each one of the art­icles we pub­lish, and it there­fore feels right to hon­our the occasion!

We will do so here by reflect­ing on our peer review policies and high­light some of the subtle changes that have come in since our new Edit­or-in-Chief, Max Reu­ter, has taken the helm at JEB. And with this year’s edi­tion of PRW being ded­ic­ated to the theme “Iden­tity in Peer Review”, we will also ask what we can do at JEB to ensure that we cast the net wide enough in sourcing our peer reviews and to bring diverse iden­tit­ies to our review­ing practices.

JEB’s approach to peer review

At JEB, we believe that one of the most import­ant aspects of peer review is that it is rig­or­ous and unbiased. Thus, the assess­ment of a manu­script should be focussed on the sci­ence itself and not the indi­vidu­als who car­ried out the research or their geo­graph­ic loc­a­tion. It is for this reas­on that review­ing at JEB is double-blind and the iden­tity of authors and review­ers will not be revealed to each oth­er via our edit­or­i­al pro­ced­ures. Some may say that double-blind review has lost its pur­pose at a time when many of our authors pub­lish pre-prints of their work (e.g., on bioRx­iv) and when we act­ively facil­it­ate the trans­fer of manu­scripts from these plat­forms into our sub­mis­sion sys­tem. But while there is some truth to this, we believe that main­tain­ing the sys­tem has its bene­fit, even just as a remind­er of our expect­a­tions with regard to the spir­it in which we wish review­ing to be performed. 

A second aspect we value at JEB is trans­par­ency, and we there­fore firmly sup­port “Open Reviewing”—making (double blind) reviews pub­licly avail­able. As part of a Peer Review Trans­par­ency Pilot we cur­rently ask authors to opt into a scheme under which pub­lished art­icles are linked to their reviews on Pub­lons. The opt-in also applies to our review­ers, who agree to par­ti­cip­ate by accept­ing our invit­a­tion (while retain­ing their right to anonym­ity if they so wish). We feel that this pro­cess con­fers account­ab­il­ity to our review­ing pro­ced­ures. The uptake of and response to the pilot will also indic­ate to us how our com­munity is enga­ging with open review­ing prac­tices and will inform JEB’s future policies in this respect.

A third emphas­is of review­ing at JEB is the tone of the assess­ments. While crit­ic­al exam­in­a­tion of our research is a ubi­quit­ous (and vital) part of aca­dem­ic life, it can be hard to see our work taken apart. This can be espe­cially hard for early-career research­ers but applies just as much to seasoned PIs. We there­fore want our reviews to be friendly and con­struct­ive, and now make this point expli­citly in the recently revised tem­plate let­ter for review­er invitations.

A final, and maybe more oper­a­tion­al con­sid­er­a­tion is the effi­ciency of the review­ing pro­cess. We under­stand that our com­munity of evol­u­tion­ary bio­lo­gists are busy people who juggle many com­pet­ing com­mit­ments. We there­fore try to keep review­ing efforts as small as pos­sible. We do this in sev­er­al ways. First, like oth­er journ­als, we reject many sub­mis­sions before review. While this might seem harsh, it often reflects a lack of fit to our remit and allows authors to tar­get their paper quickly to a more suit­able out­let.  And second, we have set up sys­tems to trans­fer manu­scripts with accom­pa­ny­ing reviews. These go both ways, we pass on sub­mis­sions to oth­er journ­als but also accept trans­fers to JEB. Most not­ably, we have now become a PCI-friendly journ­al and offer fast-track assess­ments of manu­scripts that have been recom­men­ded on PCI Evol­u­tion­ary Bio­logy. All these ini­ti­at­ives should help to reduce the peer review effort required for papers and lim­it the bur­den on mem­bers of our community.

Identity in peer review

Hav­ing set out the gen­er­al eth­os of peer review at JEB, let’s return to the top­ic of this year’s edi­tion of Peer Review Week. While the exist­ing body of know­ledge provides object­ive meas­ur­ing sticks with which to eval­u­ate new manu­scripts, our eval­u­ation of a piece of sci­entif­ic work, our iden­tity, exper­i­ence and career path will col­our many aspects of our assess­ment, be it which spe­cif­ic aspects of a study we care most about, what we con­sider legit­im­ate gen­er­al­isa­tion vs. wild spec­u­la­tion, or the tone and style in which we make our points. Just as in oth­er aspects of aca­dem­ic life, we should do everything we can to ensure that this diversity is rep­res­en­ted among our review­ers and reviews.

What do we at JEB do in this regard? Try­ing to take steps that are as act­ive as pos­sible, is the short answer. While we encour­age our Decid­ing Edit­ors to soli­cit reviews from as wide a pool as pos­sible, we believe that increas­ing diversity in peer review and aca­demia in gen­er­al requires con­crete meas­ures. One that we have recently imple­men­ted is to encour­age recip­i­ents of review requests to pass on the task to more juni­or group mem­bers. This should help diversity because genders are more bal­anced and geo­graph­ic­al ori­gin more diverse among early-career research­ers. At the same time, we need to ensure that diversity is reflec­ted across the edit­or­i­al board. We cur­rently have 15 Decid­ing Edit­ors, includ­ing five women, span­ning eight coun­tries and four con­tin­ents. While this is an accept­able start, our new Edit­or-in-Chief Max Reu­ter, who took up the reins this August, has made the exten­sion of the JEB Edit­or­i­al Board a pri­or­ity to cov­er addi­tion­al areas of expert­ise. Attain­ing gender bal­ance and increas­ing geo­graph­ic­al and cul­tur­al rep­res­ent­a­tion will be very much part of this exer­cise. The hope is that increas­ing diversity at the edit­or­i­al level will have a trickle-down effect and organ­ic­ally increase diversity among our reviewers.

But improv­ing the edit­or­i­al and peer review pro­cess is of course only one aspect of work­ing towards equal­ity, diversity and inclu­sion in research and aca­demia. There are many oth­ers that require our atten­tion, and imple­ment­ing prac­tic­al meas­ures is a pri­or­ity at JEB and our par­ent soci­ety, ESEB. One con­crete meas­ure we are cur­rently work­ing on is lan­guage assist­ance for authors who aren’t nat­ive Eng­lish speak­ers. Lan­guage is one of the many hurdles that unfairly lim­its part of our com­munity in dis­sem­in­at­ing their research. We hope to be able to announce some meas­ures soon to rem­edy this situation.