Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Peer Review’s Psychological Potholes

How can we steer the review process onto smoother pavement and get more and better reviews with less ire? Stop treating review submission like a credit card application!

By George Helffrich

Peer review is an essential component of scientific publishing. I was at the sharp end of it for many years as a journal editor and, as is typical of one in that role, suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from authors and reviewers both.

I argued in a past opinion piece [Helffrich, 2013] that the review process should be rewarded by publishers through in-kind means involving the publishing process itself. Here I’d like to highlight the need for the reviewer to have seamless access to review materials. I also suggest a way to achieve it.

Small Bumps in the Road Can Stall Reviews

Reviewers freely donate their time to advance science, to the benefit of their community and of society at large. But getting a reviewer is hard because their time is precious. A reviewer is easily deterred and will quickly carp or quit at any impediment to a smooth review process.

With the emergence of commercial platforms to manage the manuscript-handling process from submission to decision, reviewing is becoming commoditized. By this, I mean that most manuscript-handling platforms require reviewers to open an account with them to submit a review.

Usually, the platforms demand that the reviewer enter some information prior to accessing the manuscript and providing the review. There is, in fact, no need for this because the review request and response already established a communication link and a reviewer identity (Figure 1, light blue box).

Although opening an account on the manuscript-handling platform might be dismissed as a minor irritation given the greater one of a review, my experience taught me that 15% of reviews arrived as emails with notes to the effect that the system was too hard to deal with.

A Seamless, Easy Fix

Key steps in the mechanics of the review process
Fig. 1. Key steps in the mechanics of the review process. The decision steps are omitted for clarity.

A straightforward way to avoid these issues is to adopt a one-stop-shop approach to identification of authors and reviewers.

Just as some news outlets allow access through credentials provided by social networking platforms (e.g., Facebook and LinkedIn), author and reviewer access to manuscript-handling platforms should be allowed via services such as Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) and ResearcherID that identify individual scientists. Two side benefits are that services like ORCID and ResearchID likely adhere to limits placed on information sharing with commercial organizations (the extent of which many professional societies rightly and rigorously codify) and that the user has fewer accounts and passwords to maintain.

To clarify, contrast the information given in a submission process to any given for a review (Figure 1, green box). A potential author needs to be identifiable and contactable. If giving this information is too burdensome, he or she can choose to submit elsewhere. A reviewer has already been identified by the editor (Figure 1, yellow box). The email contacting that reviewer is all that’s needed to provide a unique and verifiable identifier for that reviewer. Anything more could impede the review process.

It Isn’t a Credit Card Application, It’s a Review

How important are such seamless reviews? Well, when 15% of reviewers are annoyed, that’s a lot of reviewers.

More personally, I resigned my editorial duties after the manuscript-handling system I worked with asked me—after 6 years—to enter my fax number to ‘‘complete’’ my personal contact information. Without this fax number, I was blocked from accessing my active manuscripts.

Professional societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, and European Geosciences Union should take the lead in protecting their members (and their editors!) from procedural potholes dug by poor design and support of the manuscript-handling software systems that front their journals. It is only with their collective clout that professional societies can steer the review process onto smoother pavement and get more and better reviews with less ire.


Helffrich, G. R. (2013), A modestly rewarding proposal concerning peer review, Eos, 94(48), 459,


—George Helffrich (email: [email protected]), Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan

Citation: Helffrich, G. (2018), Peer review’s psychological potholes, Eos, 99, Published on 03 May 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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