The benefits of pre-submission peer review

I’ve noticed that acknowledgements sections in papers published before the 2000s usually thank people who read and commented on the paper before it was published. Yet recently-published papers are more likely to thank funding bodies or data collectors than peer reviewers. Why is this?

park 1931
Park (1931) Ecology 12:188-207
Solomon 1949
Solomon (1949) Journal of Animal Ecology 18:1-35
Lloyd 1987
Lloyd (1987) Functional Ecology 1: 83-89

During my undergrad degree, I remember being told often by lecturers that getting manuscript feedback from colleagues other than co-authors before submitting was an important part of the publication process.

But when I started writing papers as a PhD student, I rarely asked for feedback on manuscripts from people outside my supervisory team. I already had access to a group of people who were ‘obliged’ to give me feedback on my work and who knew the ins and outs of what I was working on. As a new PhD student at a small university, where few other researchers worked on similar topics to me, I was hesitant to ask other researchers to spare time to read my work.

Once I became a postdoc, I started publishing independently and building new collaborations. And I realised that I didn’t always know who to ask for feedback before submitting a manuscript, for a few reasons.

Firstly, with the high workloads that most academics deal with, I’m often reluctant to ask someone who is not a direct supervisor or colleague to read yet another paper they aren’t obliged to.

Secondly, time is of the essence for early career researchers (ECRs) on short-term contracts trying to build their track record – given how long the formal peer review/publication process takes, if I have a completed manuscript in hand that I’m happy with, should I risk adding another few months to the timeline by asking someone to read it before I submit?

Finally, as an early career researcher, I am less likely to send my original work off to someone I don’t have a trusted personal connection with…and ECRs naturally have fewer of these connections.

Wondering if I was just being silly, I posed the question on Twitter:

While the clear winner of the anonymous poll shows that most people only get feedback from their co-authors, a handful of people replied to my tweets in person to say they voted for pre-submission peer review – they sent nearly all of their papers out to people who weren’t co-authors for feedback before they submitted to a journal. Interestingly, most of these people were mid-career or senior researchers (click here to see some of the comments).

So here are four hypotheses on why pre-submission peer review isn’t so common these days:

  1. It’s a time thing. Academic workloads are a lot more demanding today, mostly from greater admin expectations. This is one of the main reasons people complain about official review requests from journals, so I guess the same would apply to direct requests from authors. From the other side, as I noted above, for ECRs trying to build a profile and track record good enough to get some job security, wasting time on pre-submission feedback is not always an option.
  2. It’s an authorship culture thing. The number of co-authors on scientific papers has increased in recent years; so with more co-authors providing comments throughout the writing process, most authors don’t see the need to seek additional external feedback. It’s likely that other disciplines may still have a strong culture of seeking pre-submission feedback; for example, many humanities disciplines where 1 or 2 author papers are still the norm.
  3. It’s a manners thing. Good manners seem to be in decline generally. So perhaps fewer modern researchers remember to acknowledge people who read their drafts, compared to last century. This could be driven by an increasing number of journals demanding very brief Acknowledgments sections…although it really doesn’t take many words to thank someone for reading and commenting!
  4. It’s a combination of all those factors.

Whatever the answer, I’ve realised that it’s really important to get feedback before submitting a paper and I’m going to make more of an effort to do so in future.

When pre-submission peer review is an integral part of the publication process, it has potential to reduce the load on the journal peer review system for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it benefits editors and formal reviewers by increasing the quality of the submitted manuscript. Co-authors are often either too invested in, or too distant from (depending on why they’re a co-author), the work to provide really constructive comments. But someone reading the paper cold for the first time, even if it’s someone who’s not familiar with the research, will be more likely to pick up on basic readability, glaring errors, or lack of clarity. These basic clarity issues are generally the primary cause of frustration for formal peer reviewers – I find it takes me twice as long to review a poorly-written paper than a well-written one, regardless of the quality of the science.

Secondly, as an author, you can ensure you get constructive comments from people who know the topic. Authors rarely get a say in who reviews their paper once they’ve submitted it to a journal. So if there’s someone you trust who knows the topic and would provide really constructive comments, you might be better off asking them directly than nominating them as a preferred reviewer during submission. As a busy academic, I would find it easier to click ‘decline invitation’ on a formal review request from a journal, than to say ‘no’ to a direct request from the author.

By adopting pre-sub peer review, authors can increase the quality of their manuscript before submitting, thereby reducing the burden on the journal peer review system. And, unlike the preprints system, it reduces the risk that flawed ideas or inaccurate analyses remain online to be misused or misunderstood.


Acknowledgements: Thanks to Gary Luck & Amy-Marie Gilpin for reading and commenting on this blog post before I published it.

© Manu Saunders 2017

4 thoughts on “The benefits of pre-submission peer review

  1. Jo VanEvery April 18, 2017 / 6:47 PM

    We had a discussion about this in the Academic Writing Studio recently. The conclusion (of mainly more senior people) aligns with your hypotheses. Since most of them felt like they were always pressed for time, they were reluctant to ask colleagues to do extra work, even if they would reciprocate. But they had all also noticed a decline in good manners over their careers. However, they also recognized that this kind of pre-submission peer feedback was an important way to build an academic network and were somewhat sad at the loss of it for their own students and junior colleagues.

    As someone who has also helped people with grant applications, I think another potential issue here is the narrowing of your network. Once you have finished the PhD those who evaluate your body of work are often looking for you to have come out from under the wings of your supervisor (this was actually a comment a client received on an unsuccessful grant application). I suspect that in the past, this kind of pre-publication peer feedback was a way for a potential co-author to get a better sense of your work without a big commitment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders April 18, 2017 / 8:50 PM

      Thanks for the comment Jo. Interesting point – agree that asking people to read your work pre-submission is a good networking tool!


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