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.