Winston Churchill once quoted an unknown predecessor, saying “...democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”1 Often, when having an exchange with an author whose submission has been declined, it strikes me that the same could be said of peer review. Those of us who have chosen research as a primary focus in our professional careers are not strangers to criticism. Even though we understand that meticulous scrutiny and incisive feedback about our manuscripts and grant proposals is essential for enhancement of the science that forms the foundation for progress in clinical practice, criticism can be difficult to hear (or read). While scholarly peer review is an imperfect process simply by virtue of being performed by imperfect humans, it ultimately represents the best available approach to the ensuring advancement of knowledge. In a publishing world that has been deluged with the influx of predatory publishing, wherein articles are published on a pay-to-publish basis with little if any scrutiny from reviewers with content expertise, peer reviewers are the unsung heroes of scientific progress, on whom the continued elevation of knowledge relies.
Over the course of my tenure as editor-in-chief, there have been innumerable times that I have had the opportunity to laud our community of reviewers. There is no doubt that the quality of articles published in the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy (JNPT) would never be achievable without the many members and nonmembers who volunteer their time and expertise. Each year at the Combined Sections Meeting the Editors and Editorial Board Members hold an informal roundtable discussion with would-be JNPT authors. These sessions begin with a description of the peer review process that is used by the JNPT. While this process has evolved over the years, essential elements have remained the same.
Among the primary practices that the JNPT has retained is a policy of double-masked peer review, a practice that is periodically revisited to affirm that this approach is most appropriate for the JNPT. The practice of masking of reviewers is intended to offer an environment wherein the reviewer is able to offer honest feedback with the goal of improving the quality of the submission. The masking of authorship is intended to advance the goal that the submission be evaluated based on its own merits. There is some evidence to suggest that masking of authorship may not always achieve this goal,2 and I concede that there seem to be benefits associated with transparent review.3 However, because the authors who submit their work to the JNPT comprise a close-knit community of investigators in the field of neurorehabilitation, the JNPT editors have reaffirmed the practice of masked review over the years.
Perhaps the main change in JNPT editorial practice in the past decade has been necessitated by the increase in submission volume. In 2009, JNPT received 57 new manuscript submissions; a decade later in 2019, that number has almost quadrupled to 217. The ability to manage this increase in submission volume was made possible through an expansion of the number of associate editors and the appointment of an editorial board. Like our reviewers, the volunteer associate editors/editorial board members provide a phenomenal service to our field. Beyond expansion of editorial input, in consideration of the burden that reviews pose on the time of our reviewer community, in recent years the JNPT editors have adopted the practice of many other comparable journals in providing an editorial prereview. For manuscripts that do not meet the JNPT criteria of innovation or high potential for clinical or scientific impact, or for which there are a number of similar publications, this process provides an expedited decision so that authors can avoid the months-long peer review process and submit their manuscript elsewhere.
As researchers who are often enfolded in the cocoon of our respective content areas, it can be surprising when small details we take for granted make the difference between whether or not the reviewer/reader grasps key points we are attempting to make. Reviewers provide these insights, and perhaps more importantly they often provide a perspective on the findings that we, being so close to the work, may have overlooked, essentially pointing out that we have missed the forest for the trees. Peer reviewers provide a tremendous service to the authors in helping them refine the conceptual basis of the manuscript, identify relevant literature that the authors should consider, and stimulating the authors to expand their thinking. Beyond helping the authors, peer reviewers are integral part of the scientific process, their insights help ensure that the content of submission adheres to ethical standards, represents a novel contribution to our field, and has sufficient information for the work to be replicated by others. As we begin the new year, thank you to all who contribute to the progress of science through service as a peer reviewer.
1. Langworth R, ed. Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Equations. New York, NY: PublicAffairs; 2008
2. Newcombe NS, Bouton ME. Masked reviews are not fairer reviews. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2009;4(1):62–64.
3. Cosgrove A, Cheifet B. Transparent peer review trial: the results. Genome Biol. 2018;19(1):206.