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Authors aren’t the only ones: Acknowledging peer reviewers

Part 3 of our series on developing a fair and accurate picture of academic contributions

Written by Lindsay Morton

In this third and final entry in our three-part series on academic credit, we turn our attention to peer review. Reviewership, like editorship, tends to be considered standard, part of life as a research scientist. But while editors enjoy the benefits of appearing on the journal masthead (and at PLOS, on each published article they handle), reviewers remain indistinct, and too often, unacknowledged.

Recognizing the contributions of peer reviewers

Not all scientific contributions are equally evident—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Rigorous peer review is essential to publishing trusted, validated research articles. Serving as a peer reviewer is not only critical to maintaining the integrity of the scientific record, it is an important aspect of a research career, and a stepping stone to more prestigious editorial board roles. Indeed, a demonstrated history of peer review is often a component of tenure applications. 

In keeping with the importance of peer review, the process is neither simple nor easy. Conducting a review involves reading a research manuscript (typically more than once) and assessing it with a critical yet constructive eye. In evaluating a manuscript, a reviewer applies knowledge and expertise gleaned through years of study, broad reading in the field, and hands-on research experience. The end product is an intelligent summary of the manuscript, the reviewer’s impressions, and a succinct set of recommendations. 

We believe that peer review is both essential to communicating scholarly research, and a scholarly endeavor in its own right. However, researchers receive little acknowledgement for their work as reviewers (beyond the grateful thanks of authors and journal staff), and few reliable records of reviewer contributions exist.

Share your thoughts on reviewer credit

Do you feel that peer reviewers’ contributions to research are appropriately acknowledged and recognized?

Solution: Credit beyond authorship

Peer review is so central to the research enterprise, and the knowledge contained within each review is so dense, and so valuable, that, we believe, peer review should be recognized as an academic contribution in its own right. Making peer review reports more transparent simultaneously illustrates the value of the reviewers’ contributions and underscores the quality of the final published research article. In this way, opening referee reports is a first step toward peer review taking its rightful place as a scholarly output.

For that reason, PLOS has implemented options for researchers to bring peer review into the open, and for reviewers to claim credit for their work, even when their identity remains anonymous.

PLOS offers reviewers the opportunity to sign their peer reviews, and since 2019, authors have had the option to publish decision letters, including peer reviews, alongside their final research article. This gives reviewers the opportunity to claim credit and showcase their work publicly in cases where they feel comfortable doing so.

Meanwhile, our partnerships with ORCID and Publons allow researchers to automatically track and receive credit for their reviews without revealing their names, and regardless of the authors’ decision to publish the review.

Reflecting on credit for everyone

From the outside, focusing on credit may seem peripheral to the larger endeavor of scientific exploration. But in the sciences, credit opens pathways for researchers to keep exploring. Transparently, accurately, and fairly capturing researcher contributions can be used to inform professional development, foster inclusion and equity, limit misconduct, improve the robustness of research, and ultimately, to increase trust in all the different types of work that researchers do.

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