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Peer reviewers in developing nations are underrepresented, report suggests

Combined, scientists spend nearly 70 million hours peer reviewing manuscripts for scholarly journals every year, a new report says. But too much of the onus rests on researchers in wealthy countries, according to the report by the company Publons—based in London and Wellington—which enables researchers to track and claim credit for the peer reviews they perform.

The uneven workload could lead to overburdened reviewers and subpar reports, says Tom Culley, marketing director at Publons. “We need more people to spend time on peer review and to have the right incentives, recognition, and rewards for doing so.”

Publons analyzed millions of referee reports uploaded by its approximately 400,000 users, extracting information such as reviewers’ locations and the length of their reports. It used information from the Web of Science, which indexes more than 20,000 journals, and ScholarOne, a peer-review management platform, to extrapolate beyond Publons’s database. (All three companies—Publons, Web of Science, and ScholarOne—are owned by Clarivate Analytics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Publons released the report on peer review—which wasn’t peer reviewed—on 7 September.

Researchers in the United States, for instance, conducted 33% of all reviews while contributing only 25% in a sample of more than 14 million published papers. Meanwhile, researchers in China reviewed 8.8% of the papers while publishing 14%, and those in Brazil reviewed 2.6% and authored 2.1%. However, China, for one, is catching up in peer review. “We project that China could be contributing as much peer review as the U.S. by 2024,” Culley says.

Tony Ross-Hellauer, an information scientist at the Know-Center in Graz, Austria, who was not involved with the new report, calls it a “solid piece of work.” He notes, however, that the report could improve Publons’s commercial aims by highlighting demands on peer reviewers; the firm recently released a tool that helps editors find reviewers. What’s more, Ross-Hellauer says, the report does not provide full details about its methods and reflects the biases of the samples it used. As a result, “it may be worth treating these results with caution,” he says. “I hope the authors intend to publish this as an academic article and submit it to rigorous peer review.”

Publons found that journal editors tend to turn to reviewers in their own geographic regions significantly more often than chance would predict. Because most editors live in wealthy countries, the Publons team says, many reviewers also come from those areas. “Geographical peer-review disparity is harming the development of non-Western researchers—fewer review invitations mean fewer opportunities to see the latest research trends, learn what journals are looking for in a great manuscript, make professional connections with journal editors, and develop critical analysis skills,” says Andrew Preston, managing director of Publons.

On average, referee reports by researchers in wealthy countries were twice as long as those by scientists in developing nations, the report found: 528 words compared with 250 words. Dan Morgan, publisher of the unorthodox open-access journal Collabra: Psychology, which gives referees the option of paying themselves a small fee for reviewing manuscripts, says that reports from researchers in richer countries may be longer in part because they tend to review for higher-impact journals, which often ask academics to judge manuscripts not only on how solid the science is but also how interesting the findings are.

Scholars in developing countries accept a larger percentage of requests to review manuscripts and complete them more quickly than scientists in the United States or the United Kingdom. “Perhaps this is showing that people in the established regions are suffering from a bit of reviewer fatigue,” Culley says. “If we don’t match the demand with supply of peer reviewers, then more things will slip through the cracks.”