I woke up to three requests for review, and two papers to handle as a subject editor. It is unusual, but it happens. I declined to do all the reviews. This is not sustainable.
Over the last 6 months, I kept informal track of the reviews I received, both as an author, and as a subject editor. In the overwhelming majority of papers, about half of the “major” points were actually not major, but things that improve the paper because the reviewers see it from a different perspective.
This is burdening the peer review process for very little return (because these comments, important as they may be, do not make the paper more correct or more robust).
Here is what we should do: stop submitting papers to journals.
Wait, what? No, I mean it. We should write our draft, go over it with our co-authors, and then put it on a preprint server. And wait. Some reasonable amount of time. A year, maybe. After a year, when we had the opportunity to share this paper with colleagues, then we can submit it.
This is, more or less, how we have been operating in the lab. When the paper is ready, it goes to biorxiv, and after (usually) three weeks to a few months, we submit to a journal.
And a lot can happen in a year.
Obviously you can get feedback. I am the first to be surprised by this, but I get more emails about preprints than I get about papers at this point (because the people that were going to email me about the paper already did when the preprint came out). Some of these resulted in changes to the submitted manuscript.
But most importantly, you have time to think about your paper. It sounds very slow science (though I disagree with their take on social media) to say this, but let’s play a game. Go read through any of your papers, and tell me what part you would have phrased differently? Which figure you would have organised differently? Taking some additional time to think gives you the necessary distance from your work, that allows you to improve it in ways that you cannot when pressed by time.
And as for the counter-argument that very few papers will receive feedback? That’s OK. Sometimes the feedback was within you all along. But more seriously, I am willing to argue that most papers are interesting to a handful of people outside of the co-authors themselves. Peer review is a way to force (feign) interest in the paper, but we can be at peace with the fact that even the science we care most passionately about is not necessarily exciting to others.
This, of course, hinges on the fact that preprints are recognised as real papers. This is not the case yet, but things change slowly. Using preprints repositories can help us make the contribution real (it has a DOI, that’s as real as it gets!), and then leave us with some additional time before we freeze it in a published paper. And this accomplish more to raise the overall quality of published papers than peer review ever will.