I’ve written a lot of posts here about how frustrating it is to try and publish conceptual or expert opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals. Most journals have very few standards for this article category, and peer reviewers often don’t seem to have the guidance to know how to review them fairly.
Note, I’m not talking about popular media opinion pieces in the general definition.
I’m talking about the peer reviewed articles that many journals publish in various ‘non-data’ categories, depending on the journal, often called e.g. Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay etc. They are a separate category to standard research data papers or formal literature reviews. The journals that publish these articles generally only provide vague instructions, which may contribute to the confusion over how to review them.
The general idea is that these type of articles contribute to a scholarly forum that presents evidence-based expert opinions and new ideas on a topical issue, without the requirement for presenting new data (as per standard research articles). They should promote constructive discussion, propose new hypotheses, or encourage new ways of thinking, but they must be based on existing evidence from relevant disciplines.
They are not a forum for throwing out non-evidence-based opinions that may mislead, offend or harm people.
So the role of the peer reviewer is not to good-naturedly accept any opinion they don’t really know much about, or to reject a valid or progressive idea simply because they don’t agree or because it has no data (or not the data one prefers) presented. Peer reviewers of these ‘opinion’ articles are there to prevent offensive, defamatory, harmful, or just plain wrong assessments of a topic getting published (and potentially cited) under the guise of rigorous peer-reviewed scholarly discourse.
But from my experience as an author, an editor, a fellow peer reviewer, and a peer reader, it seems like reasonable evidence-based ‘opinions’ often get rejected because they ‘don’t include data’ or ‘don’t do a meta-analysis’ (seriously, I and colleagues have had this unreasonable reason for rejection so many times on ‘opinion’ articles, it’s become my bugbear); and inaccurate, inappropriate, or offensive non-evidence-based ‘opinions’ get inexplicably published in reputable journals, sometimes with ensuing uncritical online media coverage.
For the record, lots of evidence-based thoughtful opinions do get reviewed fairly and reasonably and get published and cited as they should. And yes dodgy articles also get published regularly, it’s impossible to stop this (but consider the media coverage). That’s not the point of this post.
However, anecdotally, I’ve noticed lots of dubious opinion-based articles getting published recently. Coupled with my experience as an editor (finding it increasingly very hard to find qualified reviewers who will accept review invitations), and my experience as a reviewer (increasingly getting review invitations from legitimate journals for papers absolutely outside my field of expertise – fyi I don’t accept them), maybe the peer review/editorial system is suffering from stressors more than usual. This is a post for another day. And absolutely no it’s not evidence that preprints are the answer, or that we should delete peer review – the peer review system is vital to rigorous science.
Back to the main point of this post. Why are there so few standards for opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals?
It should be a thing – as is standard with data papers, authors and reviewers of opinion articles should know what journals expect in terms of rigour, data, citations, etc.
This has been on my mind again recently, as I’ve seen defamatory (including against myself and colleagues) and inaccurate (including ones I’ve peer reviewed and highlighted major scientific errors in) opinion pieces published in reputable journals. Over the same timeframe, one of my current collaborative ‘opinion’ articles is still seeking a peer reviewed home, after multiple unreasonable rejections (because “MORE DATA AND WHERE’S THE META-ANALYSIS”)…and it is now potentially outdated. We first submitted this paper nearly 12 months ago, which was an appropriate time to present a systematic review of how bushfires affect invertebrates in Australia (spoiler: we don’t know enough to make assumptions). Hope to see it published very soon.
But this is a problem beyond my personal experiences. So please, let’s have an evidence-based discussion about how we review and publish expert peer-reviewed conceptual and opinion articles. These type of articles are a valuable contribution to a discipline’s evolution, and should be treated as such.
© Manu Saunders 2021