New Forum for Peer Reviewed Research in the Biomedical Sciences

By Harinder Singh, Division of Immunobiology and the Center for Systems Immunology, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

Motivation

Although major research advances are rapidly being made in the biological and biomedical sciences, the communication of these findings is hampered by existing publication forums. Despite the large and expanding number of journals, there are considerable limitations, including the cumbersome nature of the process. This often involves the review of a manuscript by multiple journals, resulting in substantial delays. More importantly, cursory or biased reviews and non-deliberative or capricious editorial judgements compound the problem. Finally, scholarly reviewers that provide critical context and interpretation of the findings are not being appropriately recognized for their valuable insights and perspectives. Thus, there is an acute need to establish new publication forums that promote equal accountability as well as reward to authors and reviewers and nurture deliberative yet timely announcement of scientific findings.

Problems with current publication framework

  1. Long and drawn out review processes (two or more review cycles) often involving the bouncing of a manuscript from one journal to another, resulting in considerable delays in publication.
  2. While the review process holds the authors accountable for their statements and interpretations, it does not equally constrain reviewers (as a consequence of their anonymity) in making unfounded or poorly substantiated claims or even misinterpreting the findings of the author’s. This lack of reviewer accountability s can lead to “asymmetric warfare” during the review process with authors being severely disadvantaged.
  3. The existing framework does not incentivize scholarly reviews through suitable attribution and recognition. Such critiques that can include wider perspectives of the reviewers are vital for the scientific enterprise. Their coincident publication provides an unvarnished, fuller context for the findings of the authors – strengths and limitations. Scholarly perspectives included (but not typically published) in the reviews have the potential to be extremely influential when discussing the limitations of widely accepted conceptual or experimental approaches, thereby informing people within and outside of a given area.
  4. Editors (Professional or Practicing Scientists) are over burdened with their workloads involving the handling of numerous and diverse manuscripts. Thus, in a period of rapidly expanding biological knowledge it is not possible for any given Editor to keep up with the literature in many fields, read each manuscript, contextualize its findings, and deal with the arguments and counter-arguments of the authors and the reviewers in a scholarly manner.
  5. While screening manuscripts and considering them for in-depth review, editors necessarily make value judgements. The need for rapid judgement precludes thorough analysis of the quality of the work and its significance, particularly in areas that lie outside of the deeper expertise of the Editor.

Key principles underlying a new publication framework

  1. Peer review of scientific manuscripts should be based on a critical but constructive dialog between the authors and the reviewers. The decision to enter this dialog should be solely left to potential reviewers and based on their strong scholarly interest in the work. No editorial pre-screening is necessary. Reviewers will exercise their scholarly and value judgements in selecting manuscripts that are reflective of their scientific vision and quality.
  2. Once the dialog between the authors and the reviewers ends (decided on by the authors), the authors should decide to proceed or halt the publication of the manuscript along with the scholarly critiques cum perspectives of the reviewers. Thus, this framework inverts the traditional decision-making process for publication of a manuscript, leaving it up to the authors and not the editors or the reviewers. Furthermore, the first two principles obviate the need for editors (professional or practicing scientists) in this framework thereby streamlining it.
  3. Reviewers need to be held accountable as well as recognized for their opinions and scholarly critiques. Both goals can be accomplished by co-publishing the final critique cum perspective of each reviewer under their name and generating a PubMed citation.

Proposed Journal Format

The journal will comprise of a diverse and representative group of biological and biomedical scientists (composition of initial review group, its size, evolution and governance are not detailed herein). Each member of the Journal’s review group will highlight their current domain expertise and selected publications on the website of the journal. Thus, the scope of the journal and its quality at any given point in time will be defined by the composition of the review group. Authors will be readily able to determine if their manuscript is suited for the journal by determining if there are two or more members of the review group who may be sufficiently interested in its content. Importantly, the journal will not use Editors to pre-screen manuscripts for suitability, nor to act as intermediaries between authors and reviewers or to be the arbiters for publication. Instead, once a manuscript is electronically accepted for in-depth review by two members of the review group, the decision to publish it or not will reside with the authors. Essentially, the authors will be assured publication of the manuscript, revised or not, using their best scientific judgment, keeping in mind the critiques of the reviewers that will be published alongside the manuscript. An author may decide not to publish their manuscript in the journal given the salient criticisms of one or more reviewer. Alternatively, they may override this critique with reasoned arguments and then let the subsequent scientific progress on the matter be the ultimate arbiter. A check in the system may be needed to ensure that the same reviewers are not routinely critiquing manuscripts from particular authors, in spite of the initial anonymity during the review process.

During the review process Journal staff will ensure the anonymity of the authors and reviewers. After the review process is completed (one or more review cycles that are decided by the authors), both the authors and the individual reviewers will be identified with the published article and its accompanying critiques. Importantly, the reviewers will have the opportunity to edit and modify their critiques based on the final version of the manuscript decided upon by the authors for publication. With their final critiques, reviewers will be strongly encouraged to adopt wider perspectives motivated by the findings and include these in their published reviews. Thus, the reviews will not be mere critiques of the manuscript but also wider commentaries that illuminate conceptual or technological challenges as well as advances occurring within the field that the manuscript is positioned in. Such perspectives are expected to be extremely valuable for the community, and importantly, will be citable, and bring greater academic recognition to the reviewers.

Concluding Thoughts

The proposed structure is designed to address limitations in the current publication processes in the biological and biomedical sciences. It should enable authors and reviewers to engage in constructive and incisive dialogs on biological studies (Biolog) deemed to be of mutual interest. By indicating their desire to engage in a constructive yet critical dialog with the authors, reviewers will be exercising their value and scholarly judgments. By agreeing to having their identity revealed at the time of publication, they will be held accountable for their statements, interpretations, and opinions of the published work in the wider context. This will minimize unfounded or poorly substantiated claims and overt biases of the reviewers. Each of the critiques cum commentaries of the reviewers will be indexed in PubMed and citable, thereby acknowledging and rewarding their scholarship. The timely and unvarnished, publicly available commentaries will greatly benefit the wider scientific community, helping to place each advance in a suitable context. Some of these commentaries may be even more influential than the research articles that inspired them. Elements of the proposed framework have been introduced by various journals including the EMBO J. and eLife. However, to my knowledge the entire set of proposed elements have not been brought into play in a coordinated manner. It is necessary to do so to establish a structure that holds authors and reviewers equally accountable and rewards both for high quality scholarship. In essence, it represents “co-production” of scientific knowledge.