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Why I'm quitting peer review

Why I'm quitting peer review

Author: Chris Sampson

Cognitive dissonance is part of the human condition. I used to eat cheese. But we can do better if we try. I don't eat cheese anymore, and I won't engage in pre-publication peer review. I quit.

On numerous occasions, I've written about my dislike of pre-publication peer review. It doesn't work. And yet, I have promoted platforms that support the system, such as Publons. I even joined the editorial board of PharmacoEconomics - Open, and I quite recently became an Associate Editor for Frontiers in Health Services, journals that rely on pre-publication peer review.

I've tried to be a good and fair reviewer. I usually identify myself by name in my reports, to allow the victims an opportunity for retaliation. I've reviewed or edited more than 100 papers in my time, and I can count on one hand those that I recommended for rejection. Very few papers are devoid of value and beyond salvation. I've never been comfortable issuing recommendations for (or against) publication, but still I've done it.

I won't rehearse the criticisms of peer review, as you can read about them elsewhere. What you read here is at least partly inspired by Adam Mastroianni's article; it encouraged me to finally take action. But I will add that I think health economics is especially constrained by peer review, adopting neither the working paper culture of economics nor the pre-print culture of health sciences. And it's high time for change.

Authors are not the problem

Perhaps the most important challenge in this context is that we - the researchers - depend on journals for our livelihoods. Journals make the rules. Thus, we remain complicit. I sympathise with the idea of boycotting journals altogether; I once believed this to be the only way forward, and a painful one at that. But it isn't a necessary step in dealing with the peer review problem. That's because authors are not the issue here. Peer reviewers and editors are the problem, or at least it is they who sustain the system.

I will - as necessitated by my profession - continue to submit manuscripts to journals that employ peer review. And that doesn't make me a hypocrite. When I submit to a journal, it is not because I want them to provide me with peer reviews. I'd much rather they didn't send it for review at all. But it's their choice. I just want them to publish it, in the hope that my paper might reach people that it otherwise would not.

In choosing to subject our own papers to a journal's peer review process, we are doing nothing wrong. It's self-flagellation, sure, but it isn't contributing to the skewing of the scientific endeavour (unless we sell out and make changes against our better judgement). What is wrong is to subject others to peer review, and doubly so if the process is blind. They don't deserve flagellation, and certainly not from a masked perpetrator.

What now?

I have handed in my notice (0 days) to PharmacoEconomics - Open and to Frontiers in Health Services; they shall appear ominously on my CV, with an end date. I will no longer provide or oversee pre-publication peer reviews for either journal, or any other. I should say that I still like both journals. Tim Wrightson is one of the best journal editors in our field. The Frontiers model of interactive peer review is far better than almost every other publisher's. Nevertheless, I want to hasten the transition of both journals to a model that does not include pre-publication peer review.

There are at least three ways in which we can pull our weight without contributing to pre-publication peer review.

First, we can dedicate more time to post-publication peer review. A growing number of platforms and publishers support it. F1000Research is one of the best publishers in this space, and there are platforms like PubPeer. There are also less-joined-up approaches to post-publication review, such as writing about articles on this here blog.

Second, there are a few types of pre-publication peer review that should continue, and I will try to do these more. One is doing your colleagues or mates a favour and having a look at their paper before they submit it. Another is discussing working papers at conferences or other meetings. In this context, authors are not beholden to reviewers and can much more easily ignore feedback if it's wrong or unhelpful.

Third - and this is hypothetical for me at the moment - we can serve in editorial roles that do not involve pre-publication peer review. In a world without pre-publication peer review, publishers will still need to make editorial decisions, and that's fine. In the meantime, platforms such as medRxiv or F1000 maintain basic standards to filter out the drivel.

So that's it. No more pre-publication peer review for me. My morality has found balance; my mind is at ease.

Announcing a new feature

With all that in mind, we are today launching a new feature on the site. Our goal is to encourage more post-publication peer review in the field of health economics. To achieve this, we've launched a simple webpage where you can solicit reviews for papers and find papers to review. Visit our new Peer Review page to get involved.

Photo by Mediocre Studio on Unsplash

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