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Peer review: what is it and why do we use it?

Peer Review Week is an annual international event celebrating the essential role peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality.

As the theme for this year is ‘quality in peer review’, Veterinary Evidence‘s Editorial and Production Assistant, Jennifer Morris, explains the importance of peer review to our journal.

You can also read her blog on the pros and cons of different types of peer review.

Jennifer Morris

Jennifer Morris

You’ve written your manuscript, you’ve submitted it to Veterinary Evidence’s online journal submission system, and the Editor-in-chief has approved the paper for the submission process; but what happens next?

For some authors, especially those who have not submitted a paper to a journal before, the next step may be unclear. For an editor, it is simple: peer review. But what is peer review, and why is it important?

In their Global State of Peer Review 2018 publication, Publons defined peer review as “the process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field”. All manuscripts submitted to Veterinary Evidence (VE) undergo this process. This is when the editor, having read your manuscript, finds and invites people who have suitable expertise in the field pertaining to your paper’s subject matter. You may be thinking ‘is that all?’, but believe me when I say this is a more substantive task than it appears to be.

What do we look for in peer reviewers?

Things we have to consider when finding someone to peer review are:

  • Bias and conflicts of interest – There is a section in our submissions template that asks the authors to ‘provide details of suggested reviewers’. This can be very useful and cut down on the time it takes to find reviewers. However, more often than not, these suggestions come with a conflict of interest (COI). This exists when the editor believes that the relationship between the author and the named individual may affect the reviewer’s judgement. Reviewers can ‘also have inherent bias due to their own research interests’, as stated in the International Journal of Surgery: Oncology (IJS: Oncology); therefore, relying on authors whose papers are related to or written on the same topic can also be a minefield.
  • Expertise in the field – This is by far the most important thing to consider. VE aims to provide the veterinary community with relevant, up-to-date, evidence-based content, to lend their expertise to the development of veterinary medicine. Our associate editors are vital in this area, as they are able to suggest experts that they have worked with or know of who can help review our journal. Using search engines, such as PubMed, enables us to find academics interested in the same field as you by searching already published papers. The RCVS Find a Vet resource also helps to find those currently practising.
  • Reviewing experience – Has a person reviewed for VE and/or other veterinary journals before? We are more likely to invite people who have reviewed past papers for us. Not only are they familiar with our process, but this also provides us with a more consistent reviewing method. However, this is something that VE is considering moving away from in line with the recent calls for journals to allow Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to review. This is becoming a hot topic in the world of peer review, as allowing less experienced academic researchers to review will not only help cultivate and grow the next generation of peer reviewers, but according to Publons writer Dr Gary McDowell, will also help minimise the “‘ghostwriting’ of peer review reports – the submission of someone else’s work to an editor under the name of the invited peer reviewer”. VE works with our associate editors to find the best reviewers for a paper, and we also encourage experienced reviewers to mentor those less experienced ECRs to help teach them what is expected of a peer reviewer and how they can contribute to evidence-based veterinary medicine (EBVM).
  • Contactable – Finding current contact details can be another hurdle all by itself, particularly with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Imagine this: you’ve done your research and you’ve found the perfect person to peer review, but they do not have an email address online, or their affiliated institution is reluctant to give it out to you. Now you have to start all over again.
  • Availability – Finally, it is important to always bear in mind the reviewer’s availability. Peer review is essentially comprised of hard-working individuals who give their free time and knowledge to do us – the editors, and you, the author – a favour. Rarely are there any incentives given by journals to review. At least reviewing for VE can count towards your CPD.

Roadblocks can present themselves at any moment, and that is before we have even invited anyone to review. VE has, on occasion, invited up to nine reviewers before we have received the minimum two needed to proceed with a submission. The peer review platform Publons noted that “the reviewer invitation acceptance rate for certain journals has dropped dramatically in recent years”.

What are we asking reviewers to do?

So what do we ask our reviewers to look for when assessing a paper? The comments the peer reviewers make will be sent to the author, so it is important for the reviewer to bear this in mind when providing feedback. We ask that reviewers:

  • use language that is ‘sensitive, objective and unbiased’
  • provide fair assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the paper
  • only reflect upon the scientific content of the paper; any errors in spelling or grammar will be picked up by the editor at the copy-editing stage
  • provide clear recommendations, with explanations as to why they are making those suggestions
  • flag any suspicions of plagiarism to the editorial team
  • provide sound, critical advice that they would be happy to receive themselves.

Reviews are in – what happens next?

Once we have secured a minimum of two reviews for a paper, the reviews are sent to the paper’s associate editor for a recommendation. This recommendation can be one of the following:

Accept Submission* Your paper can proceed to editing as it has been accepted for publication
Revisions Required Your paper needs revisions and you should use the comments provided by the reviewers to make your amendments
Decline Submission* Your paper is not at an appropriate publishable standard for VE and has been declined. You are free to submit the paper elsewhere
*These decisions have to be confirmed/approved by the Editor-in-chief.

Currently, of all the papers submitted to VE this year, 30% have been accepted for publication. It is common for papers to go through two, even three rounds of review before acceptance for publication. Of these published papers 57% were accepted after round two and 43% after round three. These stages of revisions are key to ensuring the paper is the best that it can be. IJS: Oncology says reviewing is “an invaluable tool for authors since it allows them to produce a more polished and rigorous piece of work”. It also ensures that the information we publish is as relevant and up to date as it possibly can be, and gives your paper the needed attention that an editor with over 50 papers to process just cannot give.

In 2012, a study was conducted by C. R. Lamb and C. A. Adams at the RVC looking into the acceptance rates for manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed veterinary journals. The theory behind it was that ‘knowing how many manuscripts are rejected might help stimulate efforts to submit better quality manuscripts’. It was found that “on average, 3% submitted manuscripts were accepted without revision, 44% […] were accepted after revision, 4% […] were withdrawn by authors, 46% […] were rejected outright and 3% […] were still pending at the end of the study”. 20% of manuscripts required minor revisions, and major revisions were needed for 36%. Of these papers, all manuscripts requiring minor revisions, and 67% manuscripts requiring major revisions, were eventually accepted for publication. This goes to show that authors should not be put off if they receive that ‘Revisions Required’ email. It is a natural state of journal submission and authors should expect to have to revise their work. In fact it is a good sign, or a necessary evil if you will, and inevitably gets you closer to your goal of being a published author.

As a reviewer, you are helping to advance science within your subject area by providing crucial feedback to authors. Your review is vital to improving the quality and scientific standard of papers submitted to and published in VE, therefore you are playing a very real part in progressing your area of research. If you are interested in reading more and becoming a reviewer, please see our reviewer guidelines.

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