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What motivates researchers to review papers?

Peer review is the cornerstone of quality scientific publishing. However, the ever-increasing number of papers that require reviewing has not been matched by an increase in the number of researchers willing and able to review them. In an effort to improve the efficiency and quality of the peer review process, a recent survey from IOP Publishing and Publons aimed to gain insights into the motivating factors that lead researchers to take on peer review responsibilities. More than 1,200 researchers were surveyed: over half of respondents were associate or full professors and, reflective of author/reviewer demographics in physics, 86% were male.

An interest in the paper was the key motivating factor for researchers to accept an invite to peer review, suggesting technologies that can match reviewers to the right paper may be effective in reducing ‘reviewer fatigue’. Other key motivators included the reputation of the journal and engagement with the scholarly community. Motivations remained broadly similar regardless of the respondents’ career level; however, early career researchers (including post-docs) were more motivated by recognition and building a relationship with the journal or editor than more experienced reviewers. The majority (59%) of respondents said in-kind or cash benefits provided very little motivation.

Reviewers, particularly those in India and early career researchers, appreciated feedback, either by being notified about the final decision on the paper or with a commentary on the quality of their review. As such functionality is often already included in peer review systems, the report’s authors suggest that there may be opportunities to improve feedback loops. Receiving recognition by being named as a reviewer on a published article was met with a mixed response, with some expressing concerns over conflicts of interest and a lack of anonymity compromising the peer review process. However, this approach was more popular with early career researchers, as was receiving third-party credit through the likes of Publons and ORCID. Overall, the most popular form of recognition was acknowledgement in journal end-of-year lists, which was preferred over awards or certificates/badges for passing peer review training.

A quarter of reviewers stated that they received too many requests in relation to the time they had available, but this varied by region and researcher experience.

Despite some high-profile studies indicating that there is systematic bias in the peer review process related to gender or geographic location, 76% of respondents to this survey stated that they had not experienced such bias. However, issues relating to poor peer review practices, such as conflicts of interest, journal politics, and reviewer citation manipulation, were each identified by around 10% of those respondents reporting an experience of bias.

David Evans, Peer Review Product Manager at IOP Publishing, provided his final thoughts on how insights from the survey may be used to change the way peer reviewers are approached, engaged, and supported to ensure the processes for delivering high quality reviews evolve with the rising demand.

“As publishers, we must improve our practices, address reviewer concerns and evolve our approach in line with their needs.”


Summary by Alice Wareham PhD, CMPP from Aspire Scientific


With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd

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