Peer review is often regarded as a flawed process, yet it remains a fundamental principal of scientific publishing. At its core, peer review relies on the availability of researchers to contribute their time and expertise to critically examine the work of fellow academics. Yet the volume of submitted articles and the number of scientific journals increases every year. Given its importance in scientific literature, there is surprisingly little research examining the sustainability of this process.
A study by Michail Kovanis and colleagues modelled the estimated supply and demand for peer reviewers across MEDLINE indexed articles over the past 25 years using a range of eligibility scenarios. Assuming that authorship of recently submitted articles represented the likely pool of qualified peer reviewers, they found that availability of reviewers actually exceeded demand by up to almost 250%. If peer review was split equally between these researchers, each would receive 1–4 reviews per year. However, in practice, a small portion (20%) of the scientific community is shouldering most of this burden (69–94%), with the top five percent responsible for almost a third of all peer review.
These results suggest that the peer review system has the capacity to meet the growing demands of scientific literature, but emphasises a substantial imbalance in the distribution of effort. Relying on a small proportion of “peer review heroes” risks overloading individuals, and degrading the quality of review standards.
Various schemes have been proposed to encourage enhanced participation in peer review including Publons and the Reviewer Recognition Platform, although these are not yet widely adopted. The authors suggest that measures to better match articles to appropriate reviewers and track review contribution may make better use of the reviewer pool, and avoid overburdening the dedicated few.