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Is there any reason why most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tend to publish non-peer reviewed literature? I have seen some NGO scientists as co-authors, even in some important papers, but most of their production is reports which are not peer-reviewed. While it is true that most NGOs do not do basic research, some of their reports could easily be converted to reviews, and some of their projects to applied research.

Do they want to avoid peer review for political reasons in order to be able to convey the message they want? In my view their message would be much stronger if it came from a peer-reviewed article. Is it also a matter of time as peer-reviewed articles take a long time to get published?

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    Remember that NGO do sponsor PhD students and fund some university research. – Ian Sep 27 '18 at 12:09
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    Why should they? The question could motivate a bit more what incentives there would be for NGOs to publish in peer-reviewed literature. – Trilarion Sep 27 '18 at 18:57
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    A NGO is not reliant on group consensus because the members are not elected. Instead NGOs are topic centric. Their aim to inform the public neutral about a subject. Peer-review doesn't make sense for NGOs because there is no need for a dialogue. Instead the publication workflow is equal to blogging. Somebody is pressing the submit button and the paper is online. – Manuel Rodriguez Sep 27 '18 at 20:06
  • @Trilarion I mention that the science would be more sound if it was peer reviewed. – Herman Toothrot Sep 28 '18 at 13:45
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    What's the average lead-time for publications in these areas? Are there fast-track journals with guaranteed lead-times? How long? – smci Sep 28 '18 at 15:08
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Because they are not incentivized to.

Publishing in peer reviewed journals costs time, money, and is frustrating. These costs are more relevant in social sciences with a lower turnaround time than natural sciences, but are nonetheless a factor.

The main reason academics publish in these is because they are incentivized to do so by tenure and status. These incentives come from the need of measuring academics' performance (and that of their institutions). Among other things, academic institutions compete for the best researchers, phd students and funding -- and signal quality with their publications.

NGOs mostly do not have research as an intrinsic motive. The aforementioned competition is much less relevant for them. Therefore, many of them do not incentivize their researchers to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Given the lack of incentives, and the presence of high cost of doing so, few researchers in NGOs publish in peer-reviwed journals.

  • You seem to forget the whole point of peer review, it's not so you can advance in your career is about having higher quality science than non-peer review. With all its flaws, peer reviewing was created exactly for that and not for people to advance to tenure. – Herman Toothrot Sep 28 '18 at 8:18
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    @HermanToothrot: That may be so, but in practice the main motivation for many modern academics to publish in peer-reviewed journals is the fact that funding and career advancement nowadays tend to be closely tied to performance metrics (like the h-index) that are mainly based on journal publication. If it wasn't for those metrics, many academics would be happy to disseminate their work solely on non-peer-reviewed platforms like the arXiv. Indeed, in some fields journal publication has become more of a formality, with the actual exchange of new ideas and results occurring mostly on arXiv etc. – Ilmari Karonen Sep 28 '18 at 9:24
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I can think of a couple of reasons:

  1. Peer review is slow. NGOs want their paper to influence policy now, not in one or two years from now.
  2. Peer review journals have a different audience than grey literature. NGOs typically want to communicate with people like policy makers or journalists, and these are less likely to read peer reviewed journals.
  3. Related to point 2: in order to effectively communicate with their intended audience they need a different style of writing and presenting their arguments than what is common and acceptable in peer reviewed journals.
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    There may also be a fourth, slightly more nefarious, reason. NGOs are political players, some of their findings may not withstand a careful examination of their methods. That is, I don't question the good intentions of a vast majority of NGOs, but they inherently have an agenda. – xLeitix Sep 27 '18 at 8:48
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    I agree with these points but not completely with point number 2, if you publish a peer-reviewed article there is nothing stopping you to create a separate document or report that presents the same results in a more accessible way. – Herman Toothrot Sep 27 '18 at 8:55
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    @HermanToothrot Sure, but writing a peer-reviewed paper costs time and money (both not things that most NGOs have excessive amounts of). If it does not help them, why do it? – xLeitix Sep 27 '18 at 8:58
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    @Buffy I don't agree, breaking new ground is called research and can definitely be peer reviewed. – Herman Toothrot Sep 27 '18 at 12:59
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    @HermanToothrot Given that they will literally never read the academic paper I would say the report written by the intern (which also happens to get dressed up pretty by the marketing department, put prominently on the Website, and distributed through press releases). Sure, you could do the same things to an academic paper, but what does it help you to jump through the academic reviewing hoop if your target audience doesn't care? – xLeitix Sep 27 '18 at 15:01
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Expanding on the answer by @Maarten Buis:

I think it is fundamentally about why people in different settings do research.

NGO's usually do not do research for the sake of research. They generally have a social mission to accomplish, thus their research is conducted to that end. It is not to increase knowledge, as it is in academia. To accomplish their mission, they need media, financial and public support. If you need as much as possible of those things, would a fancy infographic work better than a peer-reviewed paper?

Thus, they need to make sure their research is as accessible as possible for their base, and a broad audience helps too. Supporters for NGOs come from every walk of life. Whatever the people around here happen to think, most people are not turned on at the thought of peer-reviewed research, if they even know what it is. The audience of any one peer-reviewed paper is often very small. Peer-reviewed papers are usually locked behind paywalls, use complex terminology and are nearly always so specialised they cannot be accessed, let alone appeal to a broad audience. NGO's probably aren't going to add much to their audience by publishing an extra peer-reviewed paper.

Academics, on the other hand, get pay rises and positions based on peer-reviewed publications, even if the publications happen to be whatever bit of data They could maybe, possibly turn into a peer-reviewed paper. So, cynic that I am, I have to point out that NGOs are not the only people motivated by money.

Edit: As for the added credibility - credibility doesn't have one currency, that being peer-reviewed papers. Something is not made credible by peer-review (especially with the many meta-analyses showing all kinds of problems in the literature, from bad statistics to publishing results selectively leading to positivity bias). NGO's are subject to a whole suite of regulations and audits, not to mention public opinion, that most academics never hear about. So, maybe they don't have peer-reviewed credibility, but they do have other standards.

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Both NGO's and governments routinely commission and use non-peer reviewed work. Often because of the shorter turn around but mostly because it is intended for a different audience. I worked in a large government research organisation where this was a hot topic amongst the scientists. The organisation was routinely commisioned to provide reports for government and industry & many begrudged the time it took from the development of journal papers - on which their reputation and in some cases salary was based. However this was bread & butter work for the organisation. This is not to say the reports were not based on good science. Just that they were not suitable for journal submission. When writing for government / industry journal style does not work. It needs to be more accessable to the non-specialist lay person. While this may leave it open to criticism based on lack of rigor this need not be so. That is up to the author. While it is unfortunate that many of the captains of industry & government are functionally illiterate when it comes to science this is the world we live in. I have seen good policy set based on great work in this 'grey' literature. Why? Because the freedom from publication strictures enabled the author to communicate key science clearly and succinctly. Would the work be accepted for publication - no. Did it have real impact and advance science, absolutely. IMHO the key question does not revolve around the domain in which publication occurs but is it grounded in good science.

protected by Alexandros Sep 28 '18 at 12:54

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