Societies Research Libraries // January 10th, 2014

Are We Refereeing Ourselves to Death? The Peer-Review System at Its Limit

angewandte cover The question of how to improve the [peer review] system and its efficiency has become a matter of urgency. The discussion of this exceeds the size of an Editorial, but I will try to give some suggestions.

Journal editors increasingly ask their authors to suggest possible reviewers. This certainly facilitates the editorial selection of experts, but also leads to stress on particularly renowned scientists, whose names appear more often than average. Journals should maintain large databases of reviewers from many countries so that the task can be distributed to as many scientists as possible. However, these databases often do not seem to be current. In particular, the editors should have a good knowledge of young, emerging researchers, who can then be approached to help with the assessment. I often get inquiries about manuscripts that should be addressed to the experts with whom we collaborate on specific measurements. Again, more expertise in the editorial offices is in demand, because scientists should only be asked to review within the frame of their core competencies. In this resepct, Angewandte Chemie, with its team of highly qualified editors, is striving to act in a exemplary manner.

The number of requested referee reports from a country should ideally be in reasonable proportion to the number of submitted manuscripts and publications from this country. It is likely that researchers in the emerging and already very productive scientific nations, especially China, are not adequately involved in the peer-review process. This must change quickly.

Furthermore, too many referee reports are frequently requested. This load on the system is unnecessary. An extreme case that affected me personally is that of a review article, mainly on our own work published entirely in very good journals, for which seven (all positive) opinions were sought. In most cases, a decision on acceptance or rejection should be possible based on a maximum of two or three reports and the reading of the manuscript by the editors/publishers.

But the authors are also challenged. The amount of reviewing would drop significantly when they sent their work from the outset to an appropriate (also in terms of “level”) publication organ and when they filed linguistically correct manuscripts with complete data instead of “first drafts”. Poorly written manuscripts should be sent back by editors.

The system will be more efficient by avoiding multiple assessments if the reports that led to the rejection for a journal with a broad readership are accepted for the publication in a thematically more focused one. This is already the case within the families of GDCh/ChemPubSoc Europe/ACES journals published by Wiley-VCH as well as at the RSC and ACS, but it can certainly be further extended.

The other organizations competing for reviewing reports must also question whether they are doing enough to avoid an unnecessary load on the peer-review system. Thus, scientific academies should use their collective large and diverse expertise to fulfill their job of identifying potential new members without external assessment. This also applies to universities. Here, the assessment of tenure packages and the ranking of candidates for appointments are the most important and most responsible tasks. Such requests should always be accepted with priority by the contacted researchers. But is is questionable whether external assessments are required for the distinction of doctoral dissertations (as is the case in many countries outside Germany) or the promotion of a professor to salary levels above the normal standard (in the USA).

The assessments of applications for the Excellence Initiative and the Centers of Excellence in Germany (and subsequent similar initiatives in other countries) have put a particularly heavy burden on domestic and foreign researchers, which makes it difficult to achieve acceptance among the researchers for a broad continuation of these research ratings at regular intervals.

As a general rule, tasks and assessments that can be done within organizations on the basis of their competence and self-critical judgment, should not be moved outside.

This is an extract from the editorial of the same name in the December 23, 2013 issue of Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, a journal of the German Chemical Society, published by Wiley-VCH.   The full editorial is available on Wiley Online Library here.


  • a managing editor

    Just to pick up on the comment of Chinese reviewers, as a
    managing editor I would love to help our editors invite more reviewers from
    China, but it can be quite difficult to unambiguously identify who is who (due to
    common surnames, frequent lack of staff directories on Chinese academic
    institution websites, and tendency to use noninstitutional email addresses with
    numbers instead of names). The sooner ORCID catches on in China (and email
    addresses become easier to find), the sooner these technical impediments will
    fade away and Chinese researchers will be able to have more voice as peer

  • Peter Apps

    “…… and when they filed linguistically correct manuscripts with complete data instead of “first drafts”. Poorly written manuscripts should be sent back by editors.”

    I am sometimes amazed at the shoddy presentation of manuscripts that I get to review. A simple screening for language, proof reading and journal conventions would not require any specialist expertise and could be carried out by the journals in house before manuscripts were sent for review. I find it hard to avoid assuming that sloppy presentation is a sign that the research was also sloppy.