Peer review should be an honest, but collegial, conversation

Nature asked authors and editors for advice on how to improve peer-review communication.
Silhouette of a man and woman talking while sitting by a window with a laptop between them

In a Nature poll, one author said that it would help if everyone involved approached the publication of a paper as they would a conversation.Credit: Getty

Differences of opinion, critique and robust debate are at the heart of how research advances. Learning and practising how to make — and how to respond to — an argument is foundational to both research and research publishing. Authors present their work against a background of existing knowledge and make a case for why their findings are new. Reviewers assess the work, offer their honest opinion and explain the reasons, especially if they disagree.

But such disagreements are not always communicated collegially, and all of those involved — authors, editors and reviewers — will recall occasions when lines were crossed. To obtain insight into researchers’ experiences of the process of peer-review communication, Nature conducted two short polls of authors and editors earlier this year.

In a poll of editors of the Nature Research journals, nearly one-quarter (23%) of the 108 respondents said that they had encountered examples of inappropriate language in the course of making publication decisions.

And of 295 authors who responded to a separate poll about peer review, 48% said that their experiences with the process were broadly positive, 5% said their experiences were broadly negative and 47% said their experiences were neither positive nor negative.

To find out more, Nature asked these poll respondents for their one key piece of advice to journal editors; something that would help researchers trying to get published. Among the more than 100 responses to this question, one recommendation that frequently came up was that editors and reviewers should ensure that criticisms are more constructive.

“Honest, friendly comment on why the paper cannot be published,” said one respondent. “Constructive reviews and motivating feedback,” said another. “Look out for rude or inappropriate comments,” said a third.

Clearly, there’s work to be done to improve review discussions. One approach that can help is transparent peer review, in which discussions between authors and reviewers are published along with papers — and in which reviewers are named, should they wish to be — and this has been growing in popularity over the past few years. The approach provides one way to encourage reviewers to present clear arguments to support their views and to articulate why they would or would not recommend publication. This is particularly valuable in cases in which reviewers are asking for revisions to the paper.

Criticism can be difficult to hear and accept, and here, authors, too, have responsibilities. Arguments based on data and analyses are likely to be the most effective responses to reviewers’ and editors’ questions and concerns. Many authors will be reviewers themselves, and some will also be journal editors; this should help them to assess situations from those perspectives.

One survey respondent (an author) said that it would help if everyone involved approached the publication of a paper as they would a conversation. Ideally, it would be a discussion among colleagues, in which everyone was working to solve the same problem. This would form a basis for a collegial approach, but this is a hefty ambition, because research is often highly competitive, and publishing papers is, for good or bad, still among the main determinants of career progression.

When the stakes are high, lapses will happen — on all sides. And, amid such pressures, acting collegially can be a challenge. But it is a challenge that all must rise to. Everyone involved is ultimately on the same side: reviewers who put in the hours; editors who are the authors’ champion and find the science compelling; and authors who want their work improved through peer review and published.

Nature 582, 314 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01622-z

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