Should Nutrition and Food Science Journals Mimic Law Reviews?

Scientific meetings seem to stimulate me to blog. After a long hiatus from this blog, a session (# 026) at the 2012 Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting got me to thinking about scientific publishing and peer-reviewed journals.

M Anandha Rao, Associate Editor for the Journal of Food Science (JFS) was one of the speakers. He discussed the challenges to find experts who agree to review manuscripts. Dr Rao told the IFT audience, mostly young scientists attending the session to gain insights on best practices in writing and publishing manuscripts, that they need to have  3 published papers (peer reviewed) to be a reviewer for JFS. Because JFS seeks 3 expert reviews for each manuscript, he also said they should review 3 papers for every 1 they submit.

I also spoke at IFT with Dr Fereidoon Shahidi, Editor for Food Chemistry. He said he typically contacts at least 7 reviewers with a goal of 3 expert reviews for each paper. Often scientists do not even respond to his request. Sometimes decisions have to be made with fewer than 3 reviews. During ASN Publications Management Committee meetings with ASN Editors, Dr Dennis Bier for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr Catherine Ross for the Journal of Nutrition and Dr John Suttie for Advances in Nutrition, they have all spoken of increasing difficulty in getting experts to review manuscripts. The problem is worsening because the pool of submissions is growing faster than the pool of expert reviewers. All Editors with whom I have spoken express concern that  established experts in the field are being increasingly overburdened with review requests.

Wendy Hurp, publisher for Elsevier Science, reported at IFT that the greatest growth rate (approximately 20%) in scholarly papers is coming fromBrazil >China >Korea. Of course, statistically, a larger percent increase (or decrease) from a small denominator but this is not the case. In a few years she said the number of papers published fromChina will surpass that from the US.

Editors will find it increasingly more challenging to find expert reviewers. With a proliferation of new journals, especially those without professional membership lists, we can anticipate greater heterogeneity in the quality of reviews. The outcome will be more peer reviewed papers of questionable merit. Wendy Hurp said that Elsevier has approximately 20 new open access journals under development. This will give authors new publication choices and probably decrease rejection rates. The question is: will it undermine the concept of peer review?

As I pondered this question, I was reminded of a conversation with my godson. He is a law student who is active with The Georgetown Law Journal.  Legal scholarly articles are published by an organization of law students at a law school or a bar association. Law students compete for the opportunity to be involved. It is prestigious. Although I do not support indentured service, there is an important training component which could be applied in graduate nutrition and food science programs. As mentors, nutrition and food scientists talk about training graduate students in scientific writing and evaluation of research.

Graduate students in nutrition and food science should be encouraged to review for scientific journals. Just like competency exams and seminars are integral to graduate training, it could be the expectation that graduate students, at least some, be required to review x number of manuscripts. Programs could even identify the journals. I do not think the rite of passage to become a scientific expert need be 3 published papers. Serving as a reviewer with guidance from their mentor should be part of graduate training. This would increase the number of reviewers available to editors. It would also invest graduate students in the peer review process.

What do you think, should nutrition and food scientists become more like lawyers?

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About Michael McBurney

Personal Blog | Nutrition science | Generally curious about impact of social media and open access journals on science communication. Employed by DSM.
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