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The future of peer review is open

Image: William Murphy [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Trial shows researchers' growing acceptance of transparency, and its benefits, says Simon Harris

There’s broad consensus that conducting science more openly can accelerate scientific discovery and improve trust in the integrity of research.

In support of that openness, academic publishers, authors and reviewers are increasingly willing to adopt new ways of working that promote transparency and accountability.

One such way is transparent peer review, where a paper’s full peer-review history, including reviewer reports, editor’s decision letters, and the authors’ responses, are made available alongside the published article. Making this process visible increases accountability, gives reviewers more recognition for their work, and can aid the training of aspiring reviewers.

Although several publishers have adopted elements of this, there’s wide variation in approaches. Some journals require transparent peer review, others give authors the choice to opt in. There is also variation in the degree of transparency, with some journals releasing reviewers’ reports alongside correspondence, author responses and editorial decision letters, while others publish only the reviews. 

After an initial trial, IOP Publishing has recently moved all of its 17 open-access journals to transparent peer review, making us the first physics publisher to adopt the approach portfolio-wide. For now, we’ve chosen to give both authors and reviewers the option to go open, so that we can gauge the appetite for transparent peer review.

Into the open

Currently, just over half of all authors publishing open access with us choose to disclose reviewer reports, while 40 per cent of reviewers have opted in over the last three years, covering more than a thousand papers. In practice, this means that only about a tenth of articles are published with review content. To increase uptake, we are considering making openness compulsory for reviewers, so that only authors have to opt in.

We have found little variation in the opt-in rates across different areas of physics, engineering and environmental science. And in general, most authors in all disciplines seem to support transparent peer review.

Last year, for example, the publisher Sage reported that 84 per cent of authors opted for openness in a six-month trial covering four biomedical journals. In a 2016 trial at the multidisciplinary open-access journal Nature Communications, the figure was 60 per cent. As open review becomes more familiar, I expect uptake to increase.

Many reviewers don’t seem to be deterred by having their reports published, as long as they can remain anonymous. We have seen no impact on reviewer recruitment and no change in the average time to first decision.

However, we’ve already seen a small increase in the average review quality. In our trial, reviewers who opted for transparency were slightly more likely to receive the maximum quality rating given by our journal editors compared with those who declined. 

Scaling up

Transparent peer review makes training and supervision easier. Early career researchers new to reviewing can learn the craft by analysing the editorial process and published reports. And reviewers in general can receive more credit for their work, particularly if they sign their report.

With transparent peer review set to become increasingly popular, we realised we needed to find a way that could be scaled up. Extracting and hosting the relevant review content can be technically challenging, involves multiple systems and can create a lot of manual work for journal staff.

To apply this method to all our open-access journals, we decided to partner with Publons, an online service allowing authors to track their publications and reviewing and editing activity, owned by Clarivate. (*Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Ex Libris, which is also owned by Clarivate.) 

Publons gives articles a page where their peer-review history is published and each reviewer report, decision letter and author response is assigned a Digital Object Identifier, making them easy to reference and cite. This solution does not involve a lot of extra manual work.

Some might argue that the true route to openness in research lies through publishing preprints, followed by open peer review, and that the review-first approach risks being left behind. It’s certainly true that the rise of preprints makes it more important than ever for publishers to show that the review process remains a vital mechanism to ensure quality-assured research.

However, in physics, preprints have been part of the publishing landscape, through the arXiv repository, for some time. IOP Publishing has co-existed with them for many years now without a problem. As for transparent peer review, we’re still in the early stages, but we believe this method will be taken up more widely, will enhance trust and integrity in peer review, and will improve reviewing.

Simon Harris is managing editor of IOP Publishing

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight