Three-year trial shows support for recognizing peer reviewers

Thousands of Nature referees have chosen to be publicly acknowledged.
A Hand holding a red pen writing on white paper.

The work of peer reviewers often goes unrecognized.Credit: iStock/Getty

Peer review is central to the quality and integrity of research. Peer review is also hard, time-consuming and often, it seems, thankless.

Nature research journals want to offer more recognition for reviewers’ valuable contributions and to introduce more transparency into the process. So in 2016, Nature launched a referee-recognition trial. Once a paper has been reviewed and accepted, authors are given the option of thanking the referees for their contribution in the paper, with the reviewers’ consent. Reviewers who give permission can also have their names included, if the authors agree.

Nearly three years on, it’s time to take stock. So far, 91% of Nature authors and 55% of reviewers have opted in to this trial (26% of reviewers opted out and 19% of reviewers did not respond.) Around 3,700 Nature referees have chosen to be publicly recognized, and around 80% of Nature papers have at least one referee named.

Our analysis showed that the percentages of female and male corresponding authors opting in to the trial were similar: 90% and 93%, respectively. The proportion of female and male referees who agreed to be named was similar, too: around 50% of female referees and 56% of male referees. A similar proportion of referees from early, middle and late career stages were happy to be named: 54% of researchers/postdocs, 50% of assistant/associate professors, and 55% of professors opted in to the trial.

On the basis of this positive response, 16 Nature Reviews journals rolled out the referee-recognition trial in September 2017. Of the reviewers on these journals, 57% have so far opted to be named. Since January 2019, seven Nature Research journals (Nature Astronomy, Nature Climate Change, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Physics, Nature Plants and Nature Protocols) have also offered referee recognition. All this builds on other moves to open up the peer-review process. The BMC journals have been pioneers, publishing reviewer names in their medical journals since 1999. Nature Communications has been publishing anonymous referee reports for more than three years, and in November 2018 also began to offer referee recognition.

Not everyone supports the naming of referees on published papers. The reviewers who chose not to take part in Nature’s referee-recognition trial, and a separate survey of reviewers from 2017, highlighted several concerns. Some said that it might increase the risk of the system being gamed — perhaps starting a ‘you owe me’ chain — or of referees softening their reports, maybe for fear of causing offence or of retaliation from someone in a senior position. Many of these researchers believe that peer review should always be wholly confidential. Because there is not universal acceptance at the moment, referee recognition remains optional on the Nature-branded journals. And clearly there is more work to be done to recognize the equally important work of people who review papers that are then rejected, and the many colleagues — often more-junior team members — who help the main referees.

To see so many referees choosing to be named is a reflection of the changing attitudes towards peer review. We’re pleased to be able to publicly acknowledge the contributions of so many of our referees and to hear the community’s views. We hope to offer referee recognition on more journals in future, and look forward to further improving and evolving the peer-review process.

Nature 568, 275 (2019)

A longer version of this article is available at Of schemes and memes

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