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Recognition for Peer-Reviewers: Should we Include Them as Authors?

It has happened to all of us. We write a paper with many co-authors, we send it to a journal who then sends it out for review. Quite often, we get cursory comments that make us wonder whether the reviewers inadvertently submitted a review for a different paper.  But occasionally, peer reviewers do such careful and thoughtful work that they end up contributing to the paper more than some of our listed co-authors.

  • They provide substantial and constructive insights into our analysis and interpretation of data and suggest alternative analyses or even a preferred design, when that is changeable.
  • They offer constructive suggestions that critically affect our paper’s intellectual content.
  • They recommend acceptance or rejection, hence providing an official endorsement of the paper to be published, and helping to determine in which journal it appears.

Substantially contributing to data analysis and interpretation, adding important intellectual content to the paper and approving the final version of the manuscript are three of the four criteria for authorship defined by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).

The fourth criterion for authorship consists in agreeing to be accountable for all aspects of the work and its scientific integrity. One could argue that peer reviewers end up fitting this criterion too, given that whenever a fraud is uncovered, fingers are quickly pointed at alleged peer-review failures. In those instances when peer reviewers are able to examine code or other key inputs into an analysis, they may indeed understand those aspects of the paper better than most of the co-authors.

Granting actual co-authorship might not be what the organizers of this year’s Peer-Review week had in mind, in proposing the theme of Recognition for Review. Yet it really seems no exaggeration to say that some peer-reviewers might deserve to be rewarded with the most valuable academic currency – a precious paper to add to one’s CV. Or, if we couldn’t find a way to go that far, use the current throw-away “Acknowledgments” section in a more informative manner, acknowledging by name those reviewers who made a critical intellectual contribution to the paper, with this being a formal type of acknowledgment that is documented in print and can be claimed on a CV. This would be certified by the editor and agreed to by the author.

In other cases, let’s face it, the reviewers deserve demerits. We have all had papers unfairly rejected, subjected to arbitrary changes or groundless criticisms coming from peer-reviewer who, precisely because they are anonymous and unrewarded, didn’t feel the need to read the paper twice, let alone understand the subtleties of our brilliant work. Perhaps if they were lured by the prospect of gaining some form of official recognition for the quality of their work, these reviewers would have done a better job, too.