An extensive new analysis of scholarly peer review has shown that the current system is creaking under the strain, with editors finding it more and more difficult to attract researchers to participate and certain groups underrepresented in the global pool of reviewers.

The Global State of Peer Review was put together by Publons – an online platform that researchers can use to record their peer review contributions. It combines responses from one of the largest ever peer review surveys involving 11,800 researchers with submission and review data from Publons and ScholarOne, and publication data from the Web of Science collection of journals. Publons, ScholarOne and Web of Science are all owned by Clarivate Analytics.

The findings show that although overall publishing output is increasing, acceptance rates for reviewers are going down. It warns that ‘reviewer fatigue’ may be setting in among researchers who receive little recognition or reward for the work they put into reviews. In 2013, the report says, an editor had to invite an average of 1.9 reviewers to get one review done – this rose to 2.4 in 2017 and is projected to be 3.6 by 2025 if current trends continue.

The problem may be exacerbated by publishers trying to speed up the process by imposing more strict deadlines. The report notes the average time taken to complete a review shortened by almost a day between 2013 and 2017, but this could also be a contributing factor in the increasing difficulty finding reviewers. Meanwhile, about a third of researchers are still dissatisfied with the length of time it takes to review a manuscript.

Statistics also indicate that nearly two-thirds of reviews come from researchers within established regions such as the US, with the level of reviewing in some emerging countries low compared to the research output. Both Chinese and Indian researchers, for example, submit far more papers than reviews. And female researchers also appear to be underrepresented among reviewers, although more data is needed to draw firm conclusions.

The report goes on to propose measures to improve the state of peer review, including more formal training for researchers, greater recognition and career incentives to encourage participation. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents agreed institutions should recognise peer review contributions more explicitly. Survey responses also suggested more transparent forms of peer review are more likely to be adopted by younger reviewers, with reviewers under 26 the most likely age group to review for journals that make reviewer and author identities public.

‘Rather than being hidden away in journal silos and relegated to a small, unverifiable mention at the end of a long curriculum vitae, peer review can – and should – be used to gain a more complete picture of research,’ Publons’ cofounder Daniel Johnston wrote in the report’s closing remarks. ‘Now that peer review is easily measurable and verifiable, there is no longer any excuse to exclude it from analyses of research and researchers.’

Elizabeth Moylan, a research integrity and publishing ethics specialist at Wiley, says it is crucial for publishers to ‘embrace changes’ to peer review and respond to the needs of researchers. ‘All research into peer review is welcome … it’s particularly interesting to see the up-to-date 2018 insights the Publons survey brings and how issues in peer review are changing since findings of earlier surveys,’ she tells Chemistry World.

She adds that some of the report’s findings are encouraging – particularly that younger reviewers are more willing to embrace open peer review than older ones. ‘Anecdotally we often hear the opposite, particularly if peer review reports are signed,’ she says. ‘Increased transparency in the peer review process is key, not only to bring more accountability to the peer review process, but for the recognition it brings to those involved.’

But the report does highlight parts of the system where there is room for improvement, she says. ‘Clearly more needs to be done to improve diversity and inclusivity in peer review, particularly involving more early career researchers, people from different countries, backgrounds and women.’