I remember my first peer review. An Editor for a well-respected Elsevier journal in Earth Sciences emailed me during the second year of my PhD, asking me to peer review a paper for them. I hadn’t published anything by this point of my PhD, and had received no formal training in how to peer review papers. I initially declined, but was pretty much coerced into doing it, despite my resignations. “It’ll be great training and experience”, I was told. Go on. Go on go on go on go on go on. In the end, I did the review, but got my supervisor to check it over to make sure I was fair, thorough, and constructive. I remember him saying “This is surprisingly good!”, and thinking ‘Thanks..’. But his response was more because it was my first peer review, without any training in how to do it, rather than anything to do with my ability as a scientist. And rightly so – why should I have been expected to do a good job of peer review at such an early stage in my career, and with no formal training?
I wonder then how many other PhD students are told the same, and thrown into the deep end. ‘Peer review for this journal and receive fame and glory. It doesn’t matter how well you do it, as long as you do it.’
I get the feeling that some researchers regard public, post-publication peer review as a non-rigorous, non-structured and poor alternative to traditional peer review. Much of this might be down to the view that there are no standards, and no control in a world of ‘open’.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
At venues like ScienceOpen and F1000 Research, there is full Editorial control over peer review. The only difference is that there is an additional safe guard against fraud and abuse. In public peer reviews, the quality (and quantity) of the process is made explicit. Both the report and the identity of the reporter are made open. This type of system invites civility and community engagement, and lays the foundation for crediting referees. It also highlights an under-appreciated, overlooked, aspect of the work that scientists do to advance knowledge in the real world.
ScienceOpen Editor Dan Cook said “Personally, I think the public needs to know how hard scientists work to advance our understanding of the world. “
At ScienceOpen, the Editorial office plays two roles. First, the Editorial team for ScienceOpen Research performs all the basic standards checks to make sure that research published is at an appropriate scientific standard. They attempt to protect against pseudoscience, and ensure that the manuscript is prepared to undergo public scrutiny. Second, there are Collection Editors, who manage peer review, curation, and discussion about their own Collections.
Why is Editorial control so important?
For starters, without an Editor, peer review will never get done. Researchers are busy, easily distracted, and working on 1000 other things at once. Opting to go out into the world and randomly distribute your knowledge through peer review, while selfless, is actually quite a rare phenomenon.
Peer review needs structure, coordination, and control. In the same way as traditional peer review, this can be facilitated by an Editor.
But why should this imply a closed system? In a closed system, who is peer reviewing the Editors? What are editorial decisions based on? Why and who are Editors selecting as reviewers?
These are all questions that are obscured by traditional peer review, and traits of a closed, secretive, and subjective system – not the rigorous, objective, gold standard that we hold peer review to be.
At ScienceOpen, we recognise this dual need for Editorial standards combined with transparency. Transparency leads to accountability, which in turn lends itself to a less biased, more rigorous and civil process of peer review.
How does Editorial coordination work with Collections?
Collections are the perfect place to demonstrate and exercise editorial management. Collection Editors, of which there can be up to five per Collection, have the authority to manage the process of peer review, but out in the open.
They can do this by either externally inviting colleagues to review papers within the system, or if they already have a profile with us, then they can simply invite them to review specific papers, and referees will receive an invitation to peer review.
Quality control is facilitated through ORCID, as referees must have 5 items associated with their account in order to formally peer review. And to comment, all you need is an ORCID account, simples!
The major difference between a traditional Editor and a Collection Editor is selection. As a traditional Editor, you wield supreme power over what ultimately becomes published in the journal by deciding what gets rejected and what gets sent out to peer review. As a Collection Editor, you don’t reject anything – you filter from pre-existing content depending on your scope.
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.