Time to open the curtains on peer review

Transparency should be the new normal, says peer review leader.

11 October 2017

Yojana Sharma

Transparent peer review should be the norm for all academic journals and could be effective in combating the scourge of ‘predatory’ journals, a top peer reviewer says.

Irene Hames, who this month won Publons' inaugural Sentinel Award “for outstanding advocacy, innovation or contribution to scholarly peer review” said transparency is crucial for readers and potential authors to judge the quality of peer review.

She describes transparency as “being able to see reviewers’ reports, author responses and editorial decision correspondence.”

“I can’t see why making these available with published articles can’t become the norm,” said Hames, a cell biologist who has spent more than 30 years working on scholarly journals and is author of the book Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals. “It would also help distinguish reputable journals from those that are questionable or carrying out minimal or inadequate peer review,” she said in a panel discussion held during the recent Peer Review Week, 11–17 September, which this year focussed on transparency in review.

The Publons winner was picked by a panel of publishing industry judges from a global shortlist of eight finalists that included Statcheck and Retraction Watch.

In an interview with Publons, Hames pointed to EMBO press journals, which have included review process files of published papers since 2009. “For all papers, we publish the correspondence between the editor and authors, the authors’ point-by-point response, the referee’s comments, and we do this for the whole review process,” EMBO journals senior editor Karin Dumstrei says. “We give authors the choice to opt out of this, but very few do so.” EMBO’s referees remain anonymous. “We don’t have referees declining to review for us because of this,” she says.

When reviewers know their reports will be published, they have an incentive to be more constructive, say Andrew Cosgrove and Louisa Flintoft, editors of the journal Genome Biology, which in September announced it would trial publishing unnamed reviewer reports alongside a final accepted article to increase the accountability of the review process. “We have seen an increasing desire among researchers for openness: more and more of our reviewers, particularly within bioinformatics, are choosing to sign their reviews,” they note.

Since January 2016 Nature Communications has also provided authors the option for anonymous referees’ reports and their responses to be published with their paper. Around 60% of papers include them, though this varies by field — authors of papers on ecology and evolution are most likely to choose the option, with those in some areas of physics significantly less so.

Even more transparent, fully open peer review, which reveals reviewers’ names, has been used by 70 BioMed Central (BMC) journals since 1999.

In an abstract presented with Michelle Samarasinghe at the Peer Review Congress in Chicago, 10–12 September, Maria Kowalczuk, research integrity manager at Springer Nature, compared peer reviewer invitation acceptance between fully open and anonymous reviews.

Where the reviewer is named, “we noticed a statistically significant lower proportion of reviewers agreed to perform peer review,” says Kowalczuk, who is also coeditor-in-chief of the BMC journal Research Integrity and Review (part of Springer Nature, publishers of the Nature Index). Nonetheless, she told the Nature Index, “we have journals that have operated open peer review for 15 years, and are quite successful, so we believe this model can work even though it can require a bit more work inviting extra reviewers.”

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