Jonas Ranstam is a peer-review machine.
Ranstam, a medical physicist in Sweden, reviewed 661 papers across 16 scientific fields between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 17 of this year — nearly two per day over that period.
A year ago, such output might have earned Ranstam perhaps a note or two of thanks from the editors whose journals he served. Today, however, he got a bit more — the title of the world’s top peer reviewer.
The inaugural Sentinel of Science awards are the creation of Publons, a UK company that wants to give peer review a bit more luster by showcasing the contributions of reviewers. Publons created the prizes “to honour the expert peer reviewers and editors who stand guard over research quality, and lead the charge for better, faster science.”
That is a positive sign. Peer reviewers are almost entirely uncompensated and usually anonymous, but they play a crucial role in science’s self-correcting process. In recent years, more journals are experimenting with ways to acknowledge these volunteers more prominently.
The financial component of the Publons award is modest. Out of a $2,250 pot Ranstam will receive $250, along with a $1,000 voucher to publish in a journal put out by Thieme, an open-access publisher. On the editor side, the award went to Jose Florencio Lapeña, a pediatric head and neck surgeon at the University of the Philippines who, as a journal editor and member of some editorial boards, handled the most papers during the year. Lapeña will receive $100 cash and a $200 credit with Wiley.
Publons also awards digital “badges” to reviewers who earn a certain level of “merit” points through their reviews; those points can come from publishing the content of their review, or by having their reviews up-voted.
The tallies themselves come from a sort of report-and-verify system. Researchers sign up for Publons, and add review records to their profiles on the site. Publons then works with publishers to verify that they were actually done as claimed. Only verified reviews were counted in the awards, Publons tells us.
Part of Ranstam’s prolific output might owe to his current professional circumstances. Ranstam, who left a position at Lund University several years ago to work as a freelance statistician, said he does his reviewing in the morning, then spends the afternoon on his own projects. “I often work in the evening and usually on Saturdays, but this is a structure that suits me and my wife. My salary is lower, but my quality of life much higher.”
That flexibility means Ranstam can devote more time to what he has long considered a crucial part of the scientific process. At the same time, he worries that attaching financial gain and social praise to the process could dilute the quality of reviews over the long run. Indeed, rewarding quantity may solve short-term needs but be dangerous in the long-term.
“I believe that it is increasingly difficult to find reviewers for the growing number of manuscripts that are submitted, and that awarding reviewers can be a way to raise the interest for reviewing. This would of course be good if it succeeded,” Ranstam told STAT. “On the other hand, it is well-known that rewards change motivation, and this could perhaps be bad. Voluntary contributions have a special value. Will reviews from reviewers pressed to review by competition with colleagues have the same quality and relevance?”
Publons is not alone in trying to find ways of hat-tipping reviewers. The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, have been issuing shout-outs to reviewers for years. Elsevier will begin recognizing those who get reviews in on time. The journal Collabra is making money part of the recognition by giving small payments to authors and editors either in cash or in credits against future publication fees. And the UK publisher Veruscript says it will pay its reviewers, too.
And Publons’s inaugural awards lineup does have some shortcomings. Although the list of Sentinels is international, it’s plagued by an alarming lack of gender diversity. Publons tells us they didn’t collect gender data, but by our count, only 1 of the 44 named winners, Ana-Maria Florea, a cell biologist in Germany, is a woman. Whether that’s because men are overrepresented at Publons, among peer reviewers, or both, we’re not sure, but it sure would be good to recognize more women for the reviews they do.
For Ranstam — and, presumably, other high-volume reviewers — although recognition for the efforts is gratifying, the process has its own rewards. Ranstam says reading all those articles is a good way for him to stay up on the literature and keep his own skills sharp. “And it may seem strange, but to understand the underlying causes or reasons for a methodological misunderstanding, and trying to explain this to the author, is personally developing. I would have been a much better lecturer 20 years ago, if I then had had the reviewing experience I have now.”