Peer Review

Greater transparency in reviewing?

Elsevier trials publishing peer review reports as articles

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While papers published in journals occasionally contain thanks to anonymous or named referees; for many reviewers, the contribution they make to a publication is never publicly acknowledged.

Over the past 25 years, several publishers, societies and institutions have been instrumental in pushing for this to change by advocating a more open peer-review process.  In response, from the 1990s onwards, a number of scientific journals began to trial new approaches. BioMed Central (owned by Springer Science+Business Media) now asks reviewers to sign their reviews and publishes them alongside the author’s response. It also publishes the original manuscript next to the published article. Recently, F1000 (Faculty of 1000) launched F1000 Research which publishes review reports with a separate DOI next to submitted articles. Meanwhile, eLIFE publishes sections of the decision letter after review and the associated author responses (subject to author agreement).

Elsevier also believes that the publication of peer review reports can contribute to greater transparency and allow reviewers to receive credit for the important work they do. However, we also understand this greater transparency might not be appropriate for all research areas or audiences.

In January 2012, the Elsevier journal Agricultural and Forest Meteorology began publishing PDFs of editor-selected peer review reports next to its published articles on ScienceDirect. The success of this initiative triggered the Publishing Peer Review pilot, which has now been launched for 5 journals.

Peer review – pros and cons of some common approaches

  • Single-blind reviewing: This is probably the most widely-used approach with reviewers’ names hidden from the authors. Reviewers can be impartial in their opinions, independent of authors’ reputations and possible future repercussions for the reviewer's career. However, some authors have expressed concerns that reviewers could delay their comments to allow their own work to be published first.
  • Double-blind reviewing: Both the authors’ and reviewers’ identities are concealed. While it does avoid potential bias against authors and ensure prestigious and influential authors are judged on the paper, rather than their reputation, it can be time-consuming to mask the identity of authors, and it is debatable whether a paper can ever be truly blind, especially in ‘niche areas’.
  • Open reviewing: With this approach, reviewers and authors are known to one another. It is currently more common in the Health Sciences and it is the approach adopted for this Publishing Peer Review pilot. While some editors feel open reviewing prevents malicious comments, stops plagiarism, prevents reviewers drawing upon their own ‘agenda’, and encourages honest, open responses [1], others argue that the opposite effect is achieved as junior researchers may sometimes be less honest for fear of affecting their own career or funding opportunities.

How does the Publishing Peer Review pilot work?

Editors of participating journals can choose to have review reports typeset and published, in an article format, alongside the relevant research paper on ScienceDirect but reviewers will be given the option to remain anonymous. The review reports will be freely accessible to all and the first are now available to view. Each review report will also be assigned a separate DOI (Digital Object Identifier – a unique character string used to identify electronic documents, such as research papers). Editors’ comments and reviewers’ comments-to-editor will not be included. Review reports will be grouped together on an annual basis and appear in a separate issue of the participating journal.

The pilot currently contains 5 journals:

It will run until the end of August 2015. We will then examine the feedback we have received from reviewers, editors, authors and readers of the pilot journals before developing the technology necessary to expand the trial.

You have your say

Over the past few months, you've been casting your votes in the Editors' Update poll "Would you review for a journal that made the names of its reviewers public?". At the time of going to press, 244 of you had expressed an opinion - 172 (70 percent) said yes, while 72 (30 percent) voted against.

[1] Van Rooyen, Susan et al. (1999) “Effect of open peer review on quality of reviews and on reviewers’ recommendations; a randomised trial”, British Medical Journal, 318, 23-27

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