A problem in recruiting competent peer-reviewers may be the fault of email spam blockers, not the unwillingness of academics to review, a new study reports.
In a correspondence to Nature, (“No crisis in supply of peer reviewers“ 23 Dec.), the editors of Molecular Ecology report that it was harder to recruit reviewers in 2010 than it was in 2001. Editors had to send out more than two requests, on average, for every one acceptance, compared to 1.4 in 2001.
The increase in unsuccessful requests, however, was not gradual but jumped (Figure 1) just as the journal moved from sending personal requests to letting the editorial system handle the emails automatically. The researchers surmise that many of these requests may not be reaching their intended target because they are being tagged as spam.
Unsolicited email comprises the vast majority of email traffic — 97% according to a 2009 report by Microsoft. As our software becomes more sensitive to detecting the patterns of email spam, it inadvertently sends some important correspondence directly to the trash.
The editors also found that the pool of reviewers scaled with the growth of submissions, meaning that the number of reviews per reviewer was kept constant over time. Reporting their calculations:
Each Molecular Ecology submission has an average of 4.5 authors and decisions are based on an average of 2.7 reviews, so only 0.6 reviews per co-author are required to compensate for the review burden of each new article. These figures indicate that the reviewer pool still seems able to accommodate the increasing number of submissions.
The real contribution of this paper is not the details from one scientific journal — although these alone are extremely helpful — but the reminder to avoid making fateful conclusions about peer-review and the state of scholarly communication without a careful analysis of the data.