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Defining the role of the peer reviewer

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Despite peer reviewers being an integral cog in the biomedical publication machinery, there is little consensus on what their function involves. To address this question, Ketevan Glonti and colleagues, examined articles and grey literature for statements describing the roles, tasks and competencies of peer reviewers of biomedical journals.

The authors’ findings, which were published in BMC Medicine, revealed that:

peer reviewers were most commonly described as performing the role of unbiased and ethical professionals, and skilled critics.

Other statements identified peer reviewers as upstanding members of the scientific community who could be relied upon to uphold standards of scientific communication, as highlighted by the following themes:

  • reliable professionals
  • dutiful/altruistic towards scientific community
  • respectful communicators
  • self-critical professionals
  • proficient experts in their field
  • advocates for author/editor/reader
  • gatekeepers
  • educators

The remaining statements described responsibilities associated with maintaining journal standards, falling under the themes of ‘being familiar with journal’, and ‘advisors to editors’.

Statements relating to peer reviewers’ tasks were grouped into the following six categories, listed in order from the most to the least common:

  • assess and address content for each section of the manuscript
  • organisation and approach to reviewing
  • make general comments
  • assess manuscript presentation
  • provide recommendations
  • address ethical aspects

The authors conclude that the large number of roles and tasks expected of peer reviewers warrants further clarification to avoid overburdening these critical contributors. The study findings indicate heterogeneity and a lack of clarity in journal expectations during peer review, and the authors speculate that a consensus in this area could lead to an improvement in journal article quality. Indeed, the authors point out that some peer reviewer tasks are duplicative of those of the journal editor, while the number of low-quality publications in the literature suggests that certain aspects of quality control are being missed by both parties. The authors point to the lack of formal training received by peer reviewers as a flaw in the system and advocate open peer review as a valuable potential training opportunity.

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Summary by Julianna Solomons PhD, CMPP from Aspire Scientific

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With thanks to our sponsors, Aspire Scientific Ltd and NetworkPharma Ltd


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