design-focused review: a guest post by samuel r. lucas
Samuel R. Lucas is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on education, social mobility, and research methods. This guest post proposes a reform of the journal review process.
On-going discussion about the journal publication process is laudable. I support many of the changes that have been suggested, such as the proposal to move to triple-blind review, and implemented, such as the rise of new journals that reject “dictatorial revi”–oops, I mean “developmental review.” I suggest, however, that part of the problem is that reviewers are encouraged to weigh in on anything–literally anything! I’ve reviewed papers and later received others’ reviews only to find a reviewer ignored almost all of the paper, weighing in on such issues as punctuation and choice of abbreviations for some technical terms. Although such off-point reviews are rare, they indicate that reviewers perceive it legitimate to weigh in on anything and everything. But a system allowing unlimited bases of review is part of the problem with peer review, for it shifts too much power to reviewers while at the same time providing insufficient guidance on what will be helpful in peer review. I contend that we need dispense with our kitchen-sink reviewing system by removing from reviewer consideration two aspects of papers: framing and findings.
Framing is a matter of taste and, as there is no accounting for taste, framing offers fertile ground for years of delay. Framing is an easy way to hold a paper hostage, because most solid papers could be framed in any one of several ways, and often multiple frames are equally valid. Authors should be allowed to frame their work as they see fit, not be forced to alter the frame because a reviewer reads the paper differently than the author. A reviewer who feels a paper should be framed differently should wait for its publication and then submit a paper that notes that the paper addressed Z but missed its connection to Q. Such an approach would make any worthwhile debate on framing public while freeing authors to place their ideas into the dialogue as well.
As for findings, peer review should be built on the following premise: if you accept the methods, then you accept the findings enough for the paper to enter the peer-reviewed literature. Thus, reviewers should assess whether the paper’s (statistical, experimental, qualitative) research design can answer the paper’s research question, but not the findings produced by the solid research design. Allowing reviewers to evaluate findings allows reviewers to (perhaps inadvertantly) scrutinize papers differently depending on the findings. To prevent such possibilities, journals should allow authors to request a findings-embargoed review, for which the journal would remove the findings section of the paper as well as the findings from: 1)the abstract, and, 2)the discussion/conclusion section of the paper before delivering the paper for review. As some reviewers may regard reading soon-to-be-published work early as a benefit of reviewing, reviewers could be sent full manuscripts if the paper is accepted for publication.
A review system in which reviewers do not review framing and findings is a design-focused review system. Once a paper passes a design-focused review, editors can conduct an in-house assessment to assure findings are accurately conveyed and the framing is coherent. The editors, unlike reviewers, see the population of submissions, and thus, unlike reviewers, are well-placed to fairly and consistently assess any other issues. Editors will be even more enabled to make such calls if they can make them only for the papers reviewers have determined satisfy the basic criterion of having a design solid enough to answer the question the paper poses.
The current kitchen-sink review system has become increasingly time-consuming and perhaps capricious, hardly positive features for effective peer review. If findings were embargoed and reviewers were discouraged from treating their preferred frame as essential to a quality paper, review times could be chopped dramatically and revise and resubmit processes would be focused on solidifying design. As a result, design-focused review could lower our collective workload by reducing the number of taste-driven rounds of review we experience as authors and reviewers, while simultaneously reducing authors’ potentially paralyzing concern that mere matters of taste will block their research from timely publication. Design-focused review may thus make peer review work better for everyone.