What is the future of peer review in ecology?

Peer review is critical to the research process, but is also the subject of much criticism and debate. Review bias, reviewer recognition and the discovery of peer review rings are recent examples of topics widely discussed by the scientific community. Many peer review models and experiments have emerged across scientific disciplines with the aim of improving the review process, often leading to more questions than answers.


At the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, (Liverpool, 11-14 December) we will be holding a panel debate on the future of peer review in ecology where these issues will be discussed by a panel of experts. The workshop will take the form of a BBC Question Time style debate following on from the success of ‘The Future of Data Archiving panel discussion held at last year’s Annual Meeting. This year we have a great panel of experts, covering a range of perspectives on peer review, including:

  • Jane Hill (Chair), Professor of Ecology at the University of York, Chair of BES Publications Committee
  • Rob Freckleton, Professor of Population Biology at the University of Sheffield, Executive Editor Methods in Ecology & Evolution
  • Allen Moore, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia, Editor-in-Chief Ecology and Evolution
  • Patricia Morse, Managing Editor American Naturalist
  • Verity Warne, Associate Marketing Director, Author Marketing at Wiley

Jane Hill studies the impacts of climate change and habitat loss on biodiversity, focusing particularly on temperate and tropical insects. Jane is a member of BES Council and Chair of BES Publications Committee. On the future of peer review, Jane said:

“Researchers are judged by the papers they publish – the so called ‘publish or perish’ ethos. The traditional concept of peer-reviewed publications is that submitted manuscripts are reviewed by anonymous and independent expert reviewers (usually for free) and Journal Editors make decisions on whether to accept or reject papers based on these reviews. But there are criticisms of this approach and whether or not the review process is fair – perhaps there are better ways? For example, double-blind peer review to avoid potential biases due to e.g. gender or race of authors. Also, in a world of ever increasing numbers of journals and submitted papers, there are concerns that the peer review system will not be able to stand the strain.”

Rob Freckleton has a research focus on modelling population and community dynamics, and testing these using observational and comparative data. Rob is the founding Editor of single-blind journal, Methods in Ecology & Evolution, and before that Rob was a Senior Editor for Journal of Applied Ecology. On the future of peer review, Rob said:

 “Peer review is essential to ensure that we have quality control for published research. However, the year-on-year increase in the amount of work published, along with increasing author expectations of speed of publication, mean that the peer review system is under pressure. Our challenge is to ensure that peer review is fair, effective and uses the available resources (i.e. the time and energy of reviewers and editors) most efficiently.”

Allen Moore has a research focus on evolutionary genetics of behaviour. He has researched the quantitative and molecular genetic influences on social dominance, mating, and parental care. He is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Ecology and Evolution, published by Wiley, is the former Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Evolutionary Biology, and has served on the editorial boards of the American Naturalist, Animal Behaviour, and Oxford Bibliographies in Evolutionary Biology. Ecology and Evolution is supported by other journals published by Wiley, which offer authors the option to refer rejected articles of suitable quality, with any peer review reports to Ecology and Evolution. On founding Ecology and Evolution, Allen said:

 “I started Ecology and Evolution for several reasons. First, it is clear that there is a need for field-specific open access journals. However, I also strongly believe that professional societies have an important role and I wanted an OA journal that worked with and supported the goals of societies. Second, as an author myself, I knew we needed an “author friendly” journal where decisions were driven by the needs and concerns of authors, not editors or reviewers. Thus, we look for reasons to publish rather than to reject. We don’t have page limits. We encourage people to address differences of opinion (often with reviewers) directly in the manuscript.”

Patricia Morse has been the Managing Editor of the American Naturalist since 2001. Before that she worked for a “pure” double-blind journal, the American Journal of Sociology. Patricia has a PhD in literature and literary historiography from the University of Chicago and has taught writing and American literature before joining the University of Chicago Press. On the future of peer review, Patricia said:

 “I believe that the future of peer review will be the current landscape of a wide variety of peer review types serving a wide variety of manuscripts. There will still be a place in the landscape for pre-publication peer review at journals such as the American Naturalist, where peer review is expected not just to evaluate fit with the journal’s mission but also to provide a service to the community by giving feedback on all submissions and also to push papers that fit the mission to be as robust as possible. The Naturalist’s modified double-blind review – where the system is redacted, the authors may determine to what extent they redact their own papers, and the authors may opt out altogether – is designed to minimize implicit bias, which unfortunately will continue to be a need in the foreseeable future. It depends on pre-publication review. However, the expansion of double-blind review is limited by the willingness to invest the time and resources required to monitor the process and to provide services like conflict-of-interest checks that reviewers can no longer provide for themselves.”

Verity Warne is Associate Marketing Director, Author Marketing, at Wiley, where she is responsible for defining and implementing a program of reviewer services in order to engage reviewers and recognize their contribution. Verity was one of the founders of Peer Review Week in 2015 and is a member of the planning committee for Peer Review Week 2016.blog-pic

So, if you would like to to discuss the issues surrounding peer review with our panel of experts come along and add your voice to the debate. Questions are welcomed on the day and in advance through Twitter using the hashtag #BESpeerreview or by email to Alice@BritishEcologicalSociety.org. For those, who can’t make it, output from the session will be available on the BES website in early 2017.

Simon Hoggart and Alice Plane, BES Publications Team.

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