Peer Review - reviewed: Dr Irene Hames, Peer review specialist


In this Peer Review – reviewed interview, we are joined by Dr Irene Hames, who is an independent research publication and peer review specialist.

With over 30 years’ experience in scholarly publication, which includes being the Managing Editor of The Plant Journal for 20 years, Dr Hames has played a key role in this field. She is the author of the book, ‘Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals‘, has been involved in a number of working parties on peer review, and was the specialist advisor to the UK Parliament House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee for its inquiry and report on peer review. She holds advisory roles with Sense About Science and the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors, as well as being a former Director and Council Member of COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics)

We caught up with Dr Hames to discuss the importance, current challenges and future outlook of the evolving peer review system.

What does peer review mean to you?

“Peer review is, basically, assessment by knowledgeable and appropriate experts. In the context of scholarly publication it’s very important, because without it it’s impossible to know whether or not a piece of work can be trusted – whether it’s methodologically sound, whether the results have been reported and interpreted appropriately, and so on. The further away from one’s own expertise the work is, the more important peer review becomes. But, unfortunately, the standard of peer review varies enormously, and so just being labelled ‘peer reviewed’ can’t be taken as an indicator of soundness or quality.

I was on the COPE Council in 2012 when the first case of ‘fake peer review’ came to light. When we heard that case in one of the quarterly forums we were all quite shocked. Since then there have been many other cases, resulting in hundreds of retractions, as can be seen from the reports on the Retraction Watch blog. What is very alarming is that these cases have occurred in reputable journals at many of the major publishers, uncovering quite basic failures in their peer-review processes.”

Does the peer review process need reviewing? 

“The peer review failures I’ve mentioned, along with a number of others that have occurred, suggest that changes need firstly to be made at ground level. Every journal should be reviewing its peer-review processes on a regular basis, making sure they’re still fit for purpose, efficient and fair. Learned societies and publishers need to make sure not only that all their journals are doing this, but that they know what to do, that they know what good practice is. They also need to be kept aware of new developments in peer review, about innovations relevant to their disciplines and about more generally applicable ones, advised which they should consider, which they could test, and how to go about doing this in a meaningful way.

More globally, peer review is without doubt going through a bit of a crisis and facing new challenges. Besides the dented trust in it because of the problem cases being reported, it is being stretched and editorial workloads are increasing – partly because of the increasing screening taking place, for example for plagiarism, partly because in general it’s getting harder to find reviewers. As Verity Warne has said when reporting the results of the large survey carried out by Wiley of researchers’ attitudes to various aspects of peer review: “our editors tell us that recruiting reviewers is a major pain point”.

What do I think a future peer review process should look like?

We need to do what we can to help alleviate a system that is being stretched and creaking. We’ll start to see more automated checking of certain aspects, e.g. compliance with reporting guidelines and data-sharing policies. We need to increase efforts to reduce the ‘wastage’ of reviews that happens when papers go from journal to journal looking for publication, being reviewed afresh each time. How could reviews be shared more widely? How could work be in better shape before submission to journals? I’m a great supporter of preprint servers, and they offer possibilities here. I’ve been greatly encouraged to see the success of bioRxiv, especially as for many years people said a preprint server would never work in biology.

Motivating reviewers to review and making it easier for them to review well is becoming even more important. It’s being generally recognised that there needs to be greater recognition of peer review activity. But this needs to be linked to review quality, not just numbers of reviews carried out. A full and constructive review that is helpful to both the editor and the authors should count for more than a two-line comment. Researchers want more training in peer review, and this is being developed by a number of journals, societies and organisations.

One of the biggest changes I’d like to see is increased transparency of the peer-review and editorial processes. When I read articles I increasingly want to see the reviews and how the authors responded.  The reviewers’ names don’t have to appear – that’s something journals and communities should decide themselves – but why can’t every journal publish the reviews and author responses alongside its articles?”

You have produced various publications on peer review in the academic research and publishing landscape. What key insights can we learn from your findings?

“My main aim has always been to create awareness of issues and give practical advice. For most of the activities in the research publication process – from writing and submitting articles to peer reviewing – researchers don’t receive training. Yet all these activities are central to their success as researchers and to the research effort in general. Very few editors receive any training before taking on editorial roles, yet the decisions they make affect the careers and prospects of the research community.  If what I’ve tried to do in my writing and workshops has helped in some way to improve things I’m very grateful.”

How can researchers get involved in ensuring the integrity of their research?

“Many problems with research integrity don’t come to light until the work is submitted for publication or published. The increasing number and range of such problems editors and journals are seeing are additional factors contributing to their increasing workloads. I know from experience that many researchers aren’t aware of all the aspects of research integrity they need to know about, especially new and evolving ones. Those at the beginning of their research careers may not know about the most basic issues. So my focus over the past few years has been to work with researchers to raise awareness of research integrity issues and provide practical advice and resources. I urge researchers to check out what their institutions offer in the way of research integrity training and go along to the sessions or courses they run. If we can help researchers become more knowledgeable about research integrity and ethical issues, we will ultimately help the global research publication effort and help create a scholarly publication record that is as sound as it can be.”

And what does peer review mean to you? Become a guest writer on our Peer review – reviewed series and share your peer review views with the wider microbiology community. Please email us if you are interested.

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