Menage a Quoi? Optimal Number of Peer Reviewers
Richard R. Snell
Peer review represents the primary mechanism used by funding agencies to allocate financial support and by journals to select manuscripts for publication, yet recent Cochrane reviews determined literature on peer review best practice is sparse. Key to improving the process are reduction of inherent vulnerability to high degree of randomness and, from an economic perspective, limiting both the substantial indirect costs related to reviewer time invested and direct administrative costs to funding agencies, publishers and research institutions. Use of additional reviewers per application may increase reliability and decision consistency, but adds to overall cost and burden. The optimal number of reviewers per application, while not known, is thought to vary with accuracy of judges or evaluation methods. Here I use bootstrapping of replicated peer review data from a Post-doctoral Fellowships competition to show that five reviewers per application represents a practical optimum which avoids large random effects evident when fewer reviewers are used, a point where additional reviewers at increasing cost provides only diminishing incremental gains in chance-corrected consistency of decision outcomes. Random effects were most evident in the relative mid-range of competitiveness. Results support aggressive high- and low-end stratification or triaging of applications for subsequent stages of review, with the proportion and set of mid-range submissions to be retained for further consideration being dependent on overall success rate.