In more collegial, less competitive times researchers used pre-submission peer review to obtain frank, constructive feedback from trusted colleagues before sending their manuscript to a journal. But pre-submission review now appears to be rare in the current publish-or-perish environment.
Journal-managed peer review sometimes fails to screen out unreliable research. The reasons why peer review can fail as a quality filter have been debated, and many calls have been made for better training for reviewers and editors. Yet dissatisfaction with journal peer review remains widespread and appears to be on the rise. And good reviewers are becoming increasingly hard to find, according to editors in some fields. Although reviewing for journals is undertaken voluntarily, problems with late, superficial, biased and promised but never-delivered reports suggest that journal reviewers do not always take their commitment very seriously.
Post-publication peer review identifies potentially unreliable information (as in this recent example at PubPeer 2014). Although often necessary to correct the record, post-publication peer review on popular sites such as PubPeer, Retraction Watch or ChemBark can become rancorous. If the errors that readers find are serious enough, the result can be retraction – a frustrating and demoralizing experience for researchers who submitted their manuscript in good faith and trusted the journal’s peer reviewers to save them from public embarrassment.
Retractions of peer-reviewed, published articles are on the rise. They occur even in the most prestigious journals, where “groundbreaking” work is more likely to be published, and where editorial policies to correct the scientific record are more likely to be in place. Prompt, transparent retraction is laudable, but every time a peer-reviewed article is retracted because of errors that were identified by readers shortly after publication, I can’t help wondering why the peer reviewers did not notice the errors before publication.
A retraction is stressful for all stakeholders because it is often slow, painful and expensive. For the authors, a retraction is potentially career-threatening. For readers who used the flawed article as a basis for their own work, a retraction can be a major setback if it means they have wasted time and resources. For journal editors and publishers, retractions are problematic because they may be viewed not as a sign that the journal cares about correcting the record, but as an admission of quality control failure.
Even reviewers for glamour journals, where editorial quality control is assumed to be the most rigorous, make mistakes and overlook errors. So even at journals with a double-digit impact factor, “passing peer review” is no guarantee that potentially career-making research is ready for prime time.