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Transparency — the key to trust in peer review

What authors and reviewers want, according to research (and how we’re making it happen)

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The publication of an article in a peer-reviewed journal is an essential building block in the development of a respected network of knowledge. By subjecting research methods and findings to thorough examination by peers, the process is designed to prevent dissemination of irrelevant research findings, groundless claims, incorrect interpretations, and the advancement of unsupported personal views. In a 2015 survey by the Publishing Research Consortium, 82 percent of researchers agreed that “without peer review there is no control in scientific communication.”

Although the majority of authors and readers clearly still believe in peer review, that belief can be put at risk by an unfair experience or by the unethical practices of “predatory” journals. While traditionally, the details of peer review have been a little mysterious, trustworthy journals are increasingly opening up their practices. At Elsevier, our journals offer more and more transparency into their rigorous peer-review processes, not only to help authors and readers make better informed decisionsabout where to publish and what to read but to increase trust and recognition of the tremendous work by editors and reviewers.

Letting authors know what to expect from peer review

The first step in transparency is letting authors know what they can expect from the process. Since 2013, Elsevier has made the editorial times and acceptance rates of our journals openly available. More recently, over 1,500 Elsevier journals have expanded their descriptions of their peer-review policies and procedures. Authors no longer need to wonder about questions like: Does the editor personally review manuscripts for scope and quality first, to avoid wasting the author and reviewers’ time? How many reviews does the editor typically consult before the paper is accepted? Does the journal follow single- or double-blind peer review?

Getting the balance right: double-blind review

While the culture of peer review is shifting towards transparency, some mysteries may be too important to forego. Double-blind peer review, where the identities of both reviewers and authors are concealed from each other throughout the review, is still highly valued by the research community, with research indicating that it reduces reviewer bias based on gender or seniority. For double-blind to be effective, authors need to prepare their papers in a way that protects their anonymity. Elsevier has just launched expanded “double-blinding” guidance to increase clarity for authors submitting to one of our 500+ double-blind journals.

What’s happening with my paper?

Whether it’s eagerly tracking a pizza’s short trip to our door or a new book from the other side of the world, today’s customers expect up-to-date, transparent information at our fingertips at all times. Research indicates that waiting is less painful and service are more appreciated when we better understand what is happening while we wait. Watching a master chef at work in an open kitchen is a very pleasurable example of such “operational transparency”!

So it’s no surprise that authors feel frustrated while waiting weeks or months for the editor’s decision about that potentially career-making paper, and even more so if the whole process remains a mystery. That’s why our new editorial system offers authors additional updates throughout the process: we now update authors the second the editor starts inviting reviewers, so they can breathe a sigh of relief at having passed the “first post.’’ Later, when reviewers have done their part, we update authors again as a reassurance that an editor’s decision is now coming into sight. And of course, authors can always log in at any moment and track the peer-review process in real time.

Transparency is changing peer review for the better. Reducing some of the mystery about this long-valued process can help restore researchers’ trust in the tremendous work of editors and reviewers.

Is open peer review the way forward?

Published article with accompanying peer review reports.

Five Elsevier journals have trialed the publication of peer review reports alongside articles, with many more journals to follow. The goal: make the peer-review process more transparent and improve the recognition reviewers receive for their work.

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