Hypercompetition and journal peer review

By Chris Pickett

Journal peer review is a critical part of vetting the integrity of the literature, and the research community should do more to value this exercise. Biomedical research is in a period of hypercompetition, and the pressures of hypercompetition force scientists to focus on metrics that define success in the current environment—funding, publications and jobs. But it also means that other activities that are critical for research but indirectly linked to success in this environment, like peer review, mentoring and teaching, take a back seat.

Incentives must be developed that ensure that quality journal peer review is valued even in a hypercompetitive environment. Some journals do offer a benefit for serving as a reviewer, but the need to publish in the most visible, highest quality journal possible in this hypercompetitive environment often outweighs the benefits provided by a journal for serving as a reviewer. Therefore, the incentives should not come from journals.

Rather, the National Institutes of Health and universities should do more to demonstrate how they value a scientist’s commitment to journal peer review and the integrity of the research literature.

First, the NIH should include in the biosketch a space for grant applicants to detail service to the research community. Applicants should include journal peer review, among other activities, in this section. Study sections should consider this section of the biosketch in their deliberations, and applicants who provide quality services to the research enterprise should receive positive marks relative to those who do little or no service.

Second, universities should specifically include journal peer review in evaluations for promotion and tenure. Universities typically evaluate faculty on scholarship, service and teaching, but hypercompetition has resulted in an overvaluing of securing grants and publishing papers and an undervaluing of other contributions. Departments and universities should make clear their commitment to the broader research enterprise and the integrity of the research literature by considering journal peer review and other service as critical to the advancement of a faculty member.

The goal of these recommendations is not to increase the burden on a researcher’s time, but to properly emphasize the activities of researchers that have made the American biomedical research enterprise so successful. Implementation of the recommendations above would require that NIH and universities deemphasize the hypercompetitive elements of the research enterprise in favor of a more well-rounded commitment to the scientific endeavor.

The views expressed here reflect the views of the author and are not necessarily those of his employer.