The Zika virus is an international public health emergency, as declared early on in February by the World Health Organisation. As such, it is critical that the global research community help combat this threat as rapidly and efficiently as possible. This is a case when science can quite literally save lives.
Recently, an article on the host-vector ratio in the Zika virus was published on the arXiv, a platform for articles often called ‘preprints’. This means that the work has not yet been peer reviewed, and is also not available to comment on the arXiv itself due to functional constraints. The paper is stuck in the hidden, timeless limbo of peer review until its eventual emergence as a paper or ultimate rejection.
Traditional models of peer review occur pre-publication by selected referees and are mediated by an Editor or Editorial Board. This model has been adopted by the vast majority of journals, and acts as the filter system to decide what is considered to be worthy of publication. In this traditional pre-publication model, the majority of reviews are discarded as soon as research articles become published, and all of the insight, context, and evaluation they contain are lost from the scientific record.
Several publishers and journals are now taking a more adventurous exploration of peer review that occurs subsequent to publication. The principle here is that all research deserves the opportunity to be published, and the filtering through peer review occurs subsequent to the actual communication of research articles. Numerous venues now provide inbuilt systems for post-publication peer review, including ScienceOpen, RIO, The Winnower, and F1000 Research. In addition to those adopted by journals, there are other post-publication annotation and commenting services such as hypothes.is and PubPeer that are independent of any specific journal or publisher and operate across platforms.
One main aspect of open peer review is that referee reports are made publicly available after the peer review process. The theory underlying this is that peer review becomes a supportive and collaborative process, viewed more as an ongoing dialogue between groups of scientists to progressively asses the quality of research. Furthermore, it opens up the reviews themselves to analysis and inspection, which adds an additional layer of quality control into the review process.
This co-operative and interactive mode of peer review, whereby it is treated as a conversation rather than a selection system, has been shown to be highly beneficial to researchers and authors. A study in 2011 found that when an open review system was implemented, it led to increasing co-operation between referees and authors as well as an increase in the accuracy of reviews and overall decrease of errors throughout the review process. Ultimately, it is this process which decides whether research is suitable or ready for publication. A recent study has even shown that the transparency of the peer review process can be used to predict the quality of published research. As far as we are aware, there are almost no drawbacks, documented or otherwise, to making referee reports openly available. What we gain by publishing reviews is the time, effort, knowledge exchange, and context of an enormous amount of currently secretive and largely wasted dialogue, which could also save around 15 million hours per year of otherwise lost work by researchers.
Open peer review has many different aspects, and is not simply about removing anonymity from the process. Open peer review forms part of the ongoing evolution of an open research system, and the transformation of peer review into a more constructive and collaborative process. The ultimate goal of traditional peer review remains the same – to make sure that the work of authors gets published to an acceptable standard of scientific rigour.
There are different levels of bi-directional anonymity throughout the peer review process, including whether or not the referees know who the authors are but not vice versa (single blind review), or whether both parties remain anonymous to each other (double blind review). Open peer review is a relatively new phenomenon (initiated in 1999 by the BMJ) one aspect of which is that the authors and referees names are disclosed to each other. The foundation of open peer review is based on transparency to avoid competition or conflicts born out through the fact that those who are performing peer review will often be the closest competitors to the authors, as they will tend to be the most competent to assess the research.
For the majority of scientists, peer review is seen as integral to, and a fundamental part of, their job as a researcher. To be invited to review a research article is perceived as a great honour due to its recognition of expertise, and forms part of the duty of a scientist to help progress research. However, the system is in a bit of a fix. With more and more being published every year and ever increasing demands on the time and funds of researchers, the ability to competently perform peer review is dwindling simply due to competition with other aspects of duty. Why, many researchers might ask, should they spend their valuable time reviewing others work for little to no recognition or reward, as is with the traditional model? Indeed, many publishers opine that the greatest value they add is through managing the peer review process, which in many cases is performed on a volunteer basis by academic Editors and referees, and estimated to cost around $1.9 billion in management per year. But who actually gets the recognition and credit for all of this work?
It’s not too hard to see that the practices of and attitudes towards ‘open science’ are evolving amidst an ongoing examination about what the modern scholarly system should look like. While we might be more familiar with the ongoing debate about how to best implement open access to research articles and to the data behind publications, discussions regarding the structure, management, and process of peer review are perhaps more nuanced, but arguably of equal or greater significance.
Peer review is of enormous importance for managing the content of the published scientific record and the careers of the scientists who produce it. It is perceived as the golden standard of scholarly publishing, and for many determines whether or not research can be viewed as scientifically valid. Accordingly, peer review is a vital component at the core of the process of research communication, with repercussions for the very structure of academia which largely operates through a publication-based reward and incentive system.
Openness in scholarly communication takes many forms. One of the most commonly debated in academic spheres is undoubtedly open access – the free, equal, and unrestricted access to research papers. As well as open access, there are also great pushes being made in the realms of open data and open metrics. Together, these all come under an umbrella of ‘open research’.
One important aspect of open research is peer review. At ScienceOpen, we advocate maximum transparency in the peer review process, based on the concept that research should be an open dialogue and not locked away in the dark. We have two main peer review initiatives for our content: peer review by endorsement, and post-publication peer review.
A new project has been launched recently, the Peer Reviewers Openness Initiative (PROI). Similarly to ScienceOpen, is grounded in the belief that openness and transparency are core values of science. The core of the initiative is to encourage reviewers of research papers to make open practices a pre-condition for a more comprehensive review process. You can read more about the Initiative here in a paper (open access, obviously) published via the Royal Society.
Data should be made publicly available.All data needed for evaluation and reproduction of the published research should be made publicly available, online, hosted by a reliable third party. [I’m an author; help me comply!]
Stimuli and materials should be made publicly available.Stimulus materials, experimental instructions and programs, survey questions, and other similar materials should be made publicly available, hosted by a reliable third party. [I’m an author; help me comply!]
In case some data or materials are not open, clear reasons (e.g., legal, ethical constraints, or severe impracticality) should be given why. These reasons should be outlined in the manuscript.[I’m an author; help me comply!]
Documents containing details for interpreting any files or code, and how to compile and run any software programs should be made available with the above items.In addition, licensing or other restrictions on their use should be made clear. [I’m an author; help me comply!]
The location of all of these files should be advertised in the manuscript, and all files should be hosted by a reliable third party.The choice of online file hosting should be made to maximize the probability that the files will be accessible for many years, and to minimize the probability that they will be lost for trivial reasons (e.g., accidental deletions, moving files). [I’m an author; help me comply!]
Stephanie Dawson, CEO of ScienceOpen, and Jon Tennant, Communications Director, have signed the PROI, both on behalf of ScienceOpen and independently, respectively, joining more than 200 other researchers to date. Joining only takes a few seconds of your time, and would help to solidify a real commitment to making the peer review process more transparent, and helping to realise the wider goal of an open research environment.
There are many things in life that are (arguably) better in the digital age. Many of these improvements we take for granted: no longer getting lost traveling from A to B thanks to Google Maps; locating errant teenagers using their phone GPS ; reading the NYT on the go; reaching out to powerful (and less so) people on Twitter or interacting with family and friends using Facebook. Overall, there appears to be a greater sense of transparency in our own lives and those of others.
Just as with any British Firework display on the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes Night), we’ve saved the best until last!
Here at ScienceOpen we wear three hats: Publisher, Aggregator and Reformer and it’s in this final regard that we take the most pride.
Earlier this year, Jan Velterop, a thought leader in scholarly publishing, wrote to me and shared his proposal for Peer Review by Endorsement and wondered if ScienceOpen might be interested in making his long standing wish a reality.
No sooner had he written, but he found himself added to the Advisory Board and we announced our plans to add this process to our existing methodology (those with 5 or more Peer Reviewed publications per ORCID can become members of the network and review content).
Now, a few months later, for the first Peer Review Week, Jan has published a juicy Opinion (we publish all types of articles, not just original) with us entitled:
For our part, we have added instructions on how to publish this way to the site. Why do we like this idea? Because rather than publisher-mediated peer review before publication, the scientific community takes this role and the publisher verifies the results. As Jan puts it:
It is more efficient and cost effective to hand peer review entirely back to the scientific community, where it rightly belongs, than for publishers to find the right, appropriate, available, reliable, expert reviewers.
Whether you prefer to get your work professionally evaluated before you publish it and afterwards, or simply leave it all until after publication, the choice is yours and the choice is now (still time to try this process and get your paper published before the end of 2015!).
We talk a lot about peer review in the scholarly communications world. Many of us – and our organizations – are working to improve both the process and the experience for researchers, which has led to a significant increase in the range of options available, especially – but not exclusively – for reviewing journal articles. From double blind to completely open review, pre- and/or post-publication, and even transferrable peer review, not to mention the work being done on peer review recognition and validation by organizations like Publons and PRE, there’s a plethora of new approaches and services to choose from.
But what do researchers make of all this? What are their experiences of peer review? How and why do they review themselves, and what do they get from reviews of their own work? In this reflection from researchers around the world, we asked some of them to tell us about their views of peer review.
By and large, their feedback was very positive, with good experiences outweighing bad and universal agreement that peer review is, as Elizabeth Briody of Cultural Keys, USA, says: “a critically important process for evaluating the merit, content, relevance, and usefulness of scholarly publications” – or as Hugh Jarvis, Cybrarian, University at Buffalo, USA, describes it: “Peer review is the glue of academic publishing.” Saurabh Sinha, Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg, South Africa agrees that: “it positions our work with respect to the body of already published knowledge. The approach also helps to ensure, as far as possible, the correctness of the work, elimination of potential blind spots, and validity of assumptions for a practical world.”
Pretty much everyone noted the importance of peer review – both as reviewer and author – to them personally as well as professionally. For example, Professor Yongcheng Hu, a medical researcher in China commented that: “Peer review is an essential arbiter of scientific quality, no doubt, it has a great impact on scientific communication and is of great value in determining academic papers’ suitability for publication, while for me, via personal experience, it is also an process of exploration and sublimation.” Erik Ingelson, Professor of Molecular Epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, currently Visiting Professor at Stanford University, USA adds: “Mostly, my experiences of being a reviewer have been positive; I get to think critically about study design and methods and learn new things on the way. Similarly, most of the time the review process is positive also as the author, since you get valuable input and the paper that comes out is often better than the original submission.” Anna Cupani, a Belgian researcher, agrees: “Having someone reading and commenting on your research is beneficial for several reasons: it validates your work, it confirms what you are doing is meaningful not only for you but for a wider scientific audience and it helps you focus and improve your research. You never grasp the meaning of something as deeply as when you have to explain it to someone else!” And Lee Pooi See, Associate Chair (Research), School of Materials Science and Engineering, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore adds: “My personal experience of being reviewed has been interesting; especially in receiving scientific viewpoints from different reviewers on emerging topics. Peer review also steers us to identify those unaddressed aspects of the related research topics.
Several people also commented that there are upsides and downsides to peer review. Janine Milbradt, who is currently working on her PhD at the Institute for Human Genetics, University of Cologne, Germany, says: “You never know what is going to happen! All you can be sure about is that you will have to put another 3-6 months of work into your paper. Having a paper reviewed is a nerve-stretching process, filled with hopes and dreams about the reviewers actually liking your research. On a more serious note, the review process is a very important tool to find incomprehensible or knowledge lacking parts of your research to improve your paper.” Professor Wong Limsoon, KITHCT Professor of Computer Science, National University of Singapore comments: “I appreciate very much constructive reviews that gave me really useful suggestions on my work. I am sometimes annoyed by uninformed comments, but fortunately these are few.”
So what improvements to peer review would our group of researchers like to see? To quote Professor Sinha again: “Scholarly peer-review has…the opportunity to improve beyond the past, where today, coupled with data, crowd-sourced reviews/discussion, newer open-access technologies could play a dynamic role of developing credibility of research-work and at the same time increasing competition!” Hugh Jarvis likewise has “great hopes that peer review will develop a much more expanded role in the future, and provide input before and after publication, similar to the role the comments serve in Current Anthropology and the product ratings in sites like Amazon.com.” And Joao Bosco Pesquero, Professor, Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil would also like to see a more open approach: “The more openly we produce science and expose our work to criticism, the more it helps to improve what we do.”
Perhaps the best summary of why researchers continue to value peer review – both as authors and as reviewers – comes from PhD student, Grace Pold of UMass – Amherst, USA, who told us: “Although I have had the opportunity to formally review only four or five papers, reviewing papers is one of my favorite things to do. First off, it is a good reminder that not all papers are born perfect, and when I am struggling to try and finish my own work and the prospect of a well-polished manuscript seems too far in the distance, it gives me hope. Second, is there a better opportunity to see what your colleagues are working on and thinking about than by reviewing their work? Third, the idea of being able to help shape the information released into the public sphere is a very enticing. Fourth, it is a great excuse to really think about the assumptions you and others make in your research…when you review, it is your responsibility to stop and think about why this is the way things are done. Fifth, thinking up alternative interpretations and then filtering through the data presented in the paper to determine the robustness of the conclusions is a rewarding challenge. Finally, reviewing papers provides an opportunity to slow-down and formulate a full, well-rounded opinion on something, something which happens unfortunately rarely in the life of the frantic modern scientist stuck in with the nitty gritty details of doing experiments. And I think that from a personal perspective, that final point of generating a sense of accomplishment in doing a good job in thinking things through to the end is probably the greatest motivation for me to review papers.”