Best practice guidelines for peer review

Why you need at least two independent peer reviewers

The publishing landscape is changing, presenting both challenges and opportunities that impact peer review.  

There are new risks and threats challenging the traditional trust-based peer review model. This includes the increase of paper mills, academic misconduct, and attempts to discredit politicized disciplines. The complexities of developments in new emerging research technologies, the rise of international collaborations, and multi-disciplinary research also increase the need to make sure all key areas are thoroughly assessed during peer review. 

It is more vital than ever, for academic journal editors to follow peer review best practice when assessing original research for publication. Key to this is to make sure that peer review reports are sourced from at least two independent referees, for every original research article we publish. 

Demonstrating peer review best practice has been followed, reinforces confidence in your academic community, that the work published in your journal is properly validated and reliably adds to the academic record. Authors also expect – and deserve – an unbiased and full peer review process that offers an opportunity to improve their manuscript based on expert feedback from at least two independent peer reviewers.  

Below are our best practice guidelines along with some answered questions to support you and your journal. 

What does best practice look like?

As an editor you must be transparent in how you handle manuscripts and be able to substantiate the editorial decisions you make. To avoid the possibility of bias compromising the decision-making process, it is important to get reports from two independent peer reviewers for every published research article.

For more information on what is expected of you, please read our Editor Code of Conduct and the role of the editor.

All Taylor & Francis original research publications must undergo rigorous peer review including:

  1. Initial screening 

  2. Anonymous refereeing by a minimum of two independent expert referees  

  3. Editor assessment of the work’s readiness for publication, informed by two or more independent referees’ comments

If your journal has a peer review system in place, all peer review activity should be conducted in the system to maintain and record an unbiased and appropriate peer review process. 

Journals not on a peer review system must make sure that manual peer review records are created and securely retained in a format compliant with global data protection legislation

Diligence here will make sure Taylor & Francis can better support editors should there be any need to audit peer review quality or defend manuscript handling in future.

Guidance on independent peer review

An independent peer reviewer is an expert in the field the research article describes, or the specific techniques, methods, or study design underlying it. They have no obvious competing interest that may bias their opinion of the work under review. While we may not be able to detect all types of competing interest (such as personal, political, or religious), the main indicators of a competing interest are: 

  • Recent or regular co-authorship with any of the manuscript authors 

  • Affiliation with the same institute as the authors 

To follow best practice in your role as an editor, you should not select two reviewers from the same institution or department. Similarly, independent reviewers should not be from the same institution or department as the handling editor.

The final decision is the editor’s responsibility. Taking into account a range of expert assessments from suitable reviewers, supports you to make a fair editorial decision. 

Can an editor act as an independent peer reviewer?

  • When following peer review best practice, a manuscript’s handling editor should not act as an independent peer reviewer.  

  • In this context, a handling editor may be the associate editor who has organised peer review, regardless of whether they have sign-off on the final publication decision, which might escalate to an editor-in-chief.  

  • Similarly, an editor-in-chief with responsibility for the final outcome of a paper should not act as a peer reviewer on a paper they are handling. For example, in a double anonymous journal, the editor handling that paper should never be a reviewer, because they know the identity of those authors (withheld from the reviewer under double anonymous peer review). This risks influencing their decision, even unconsciously, and breaching the terms of the advertised peer review model.  

  • The role of the Editor is a privileged one. It is vital to make fair and timely editorial decisions. This involves coordination of peer review and making an editorial decision on the balance of the reviewer comments and your own expert knowledge, which allows the journal and its field to develop. Developing a healthy reviewer pool and mentoring others to become expert reviewers is also a key element of the editor role.  

  • If an editor is both the decision maker and reviewer, it can lead to strong accusations of bias and a narrowing of that journal’s scope, as well as introducing risks that the paper hasn’t been fully and fairly assessed. There is the potential to provide positive reviews for papers that confirm their school of thought or theoretical position.  

  • If you encounter a paper that is so specific only you have sufficient knowledge to handle it, you should escalate this to your Editorial Contact, who’ll be able to recommend options for additional support. 

Can an editor desk reject a paper without independent peer reviewer feedback?

  • Yes, editors may elect to desk reject a submission without peer review if it fails to meet journal standards of quality or novelty, or if the research described is out of scope. 

Can an editorial board member act as an independent peer reviewer?

An Editorial Board Member may be considered an independent peer reviewer if they: 

  • Meet the independence criteria. Please read more on how to define an independent peer review.

  • Are not involved in the direct handling or decision making for that particular paper. 

  • Their involvement complies with the expected process outlined in the IFAs.

Requirements for peer review of papers

All original research publications must always be properly peer reviewed by a minimum of two independent experts. This is particularly important for the following types of research:  

However, even in fields without strict requirements, it is a core part of the editor’s role to ensure editorial decisions are supported by a full expert assessment from at least two reviewers.

Benefits of securing two independent peer reviewers

Obtaining reports from two independent peer reviewers reduces bias and reduces the chance that errors/flaws are missed.  Where the final decision is challenged by readers of the published paper, editors are better placed to defend their decision.

Reviewers benefit from the opportunity to expertly assess content prior to its publication and wider dissemination. A Taylor & Francis reviewer motivation survey found that two thirds of respondents believe reviewing is a core part of their role and do so because of their interest in the topic, while half value the opportunity to see what is new in their field.

This process also makes sure authors get the thorough peer review process they expect and deserve.  

Importance of two independent peer reviewers

Encouraging diversity of voices & expertise  

Securing reports from two or more independent peer reviewers helps make sure a range of voices are presented and promotes fair and full evaluation. One individual expert may not be able to assess all elements of the submission. Inviting two or more independent reviewers enables rigorous evaluation of research. 

Being exposed to a range of views improves an editor’s ability to be able to make balanced and fair decisions based on a range of expert reviews received. A diversity of voices and expertise in peer review is important in balancing different biases for fair and full evaluation. 

Supporting your decisions 

A robust peer review process supports defense of your editorial decisions, professional reputation, and your journal, should an integrity challenge arise. If an author isn’t happy with the way their paper was handled or appeals the decision, having two independent peer reviews demonstrates the paper was handled by you appropriately, in-line with policy and following best practice. 

Frequently asked questions about independent peer review

A paper’s handling editor should not act as an independent peer reviewer. If an editor is both the decision maker and reviewer, it can leave the journal open to accusations of bias and a narrowing of scope, as well as not following best practice.  

Guest editors effectively act as handling editors for their special issue, so they must not act as a peer reviewer. A special issue should be handled in the same way as a regular issue so two independent peer reviews must be obtained for each manuscript. 

We understand that sourcing multiple appropriate peer reviewers can be challenging. View our editors guide for top tips on finding good quality peer reviewers. You can also access helpful videos on finding and working with peer reviewers here and here

Also available are a series of online training modules for peer reviewers: Excellence in Peer Review: Taylor & Francis Review Training network.