The Peer-Review Crisis by Colleen Flaherty, who covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed.
The peer-review system, which relies on unpaid volunteers, has long been stressed. COVID-19 is making it worse—a lot worse. Possible solutions include paying reviewers or limiting revise-and-resubmits, but are these just Band-Aids on bigger structural problems?
Gale Sinatra, professor of psychology and the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education at the University of Southern California, is stepping down as associate editor of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.Officially, it’s because she’s becoming an associate dean for research and won’t have as much time to devote to her editorship. But the new job is part only part of it: like so many other journal editors, Sinatra is facing a serious shortage of available scholars to review submitted articles, and it’s a problem she can’t solve on her own.
Worse Than Ever
This issue isn’t new: academic publishing has long been a delicate system that operates—tenuously—on goodwill, in the form of comprehensive, unpaid article analyses from expert volunteers. But the pandemic has pushed this system to breaking, or close to it. With academics’ professional and personal lives disrupted in so many ways for years now, this kind of labor is increasingly harder to source: journal editors across fields say scholars are significantly less likely to accept article-review requests, if they respond at all, and (to a lesser degree but concerningly nonetheless) they are more likely to return reviews that are late or even rushed.
At the same time, journals’ overall submission numbers haven’t decreased to the extent many anticipated during COVID-19, and they have actually increased in many fields, especially those in which researchers were studying the pandemic in some way.
“I’ve had a good run. I’ve done three journals, [and] I’ve enjoyed all three of these experiences. But I’ve peaked out because it’s just become too difficult,” Sinatra said of trying to find reviewers, chasing down late reviews and, worst of all, apologizing to the scholars who understandably want to know if and when their delayed articles will be published. These are often scholars who are looking for jobs, going up for tenure or facing other high-stakes decisions that turn on their publication records. (This is not to mention the fundamental problem of delays in the timely publications of valuable research.)
Using very rough estimates, Sinatra said an article that may have taken three months to get reviewed before the pandemic—a turnaround time for which many journals strive—could take six months now. And in some cases, Sinatra hasn’t been able to find a third reviewer at all and had to offer more extensive editorial comments to make up for having only two.
“I just don’t know what we’re going to do. The model has to change,” Sinatra said...”
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