Need we be concerned about the volume and quality of manuscript reviews for journal submissions? In a recent editorial published in Ecology Letters by Michael Hochberg and colleagues, they answer yes, we should be concerned. They argue that manuscript reviewing is suffering from a tragedy of the commons, where growing submission rates to top journals is overburdening potential reviewers. This overburdening has two causes. First, that researchers tend to send their manuscripts to journals based on impact factors, regardless of the appropriateness of the manuscript for the receiving journal. Second is that authors view negative reviews as stochastic happenstance and in the rush to resubmit do little to improve their manuscript.
While the concerns are real, and the authors do suggest common sense approaches to publishing (i.e., choose appropriate journals and get colleagues to review drafts -something most of my colleagues do), there is little discussion of what incentives could be offered. The curse of the commons is when individual motives do not benefit the greater good, thus incentives could be used to alter motives potentially benefiting the larger community.
A number of journals now offer free access or free color figures in future publications for reviewing or even offering payment. Perhaps the move towards reduced length rapid turn around publications is part of the problem and that we should be valuing longer, more detailed papers (the classic quantity vs. quality problem). Whatever the potential solutions, it is promising to see journals, especially top-ranked ones like Ecology Letters, discussing these issues.
Michael E. Hochberg, Jonathan M. Chase, Nicholas J. Gotelli, Alan Hastings, Shahid Naeem (2009). The tragedy of the reviewer commons* Ecology Letters, 12 (1), 2-4 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2008.01276.x