Opening up peer review

By Dr. Stuart Taylor, Publishing Director, The Royal Society, London, UK

Peer review has been a key part of the research communication system for centuries. Scientists absolutely depend on a research literature that is as reliable, reproducible and trustworthy as possible in order to inform their future work and to help explain other findings. Subjecting results, discoveries and theories to rigorous scrutiny is an essential part of this error-checking and self-correction process, as is the system of retraction in cases where findings have later been found to be unreliable.

But trust in science is not only important to scientists. In an era of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the authority of experts in some quarters, peer review has perhaps never been more important to policymakers and the public too.

Few would question that the principle of ‘review by peers’ should remain central to the curation of the scientific record. But peer review is not one single, uniform process and many are beginning to question some of the specific practice(s) of peer review as conducted by journals.

The rise of preprinting and use of newer platforms such as F1000Research have shown us that separation of peer review from publication is not only possible, but may even be preferable. Carrying out peer review after publication allows for faster dissemination of findings and exposes research to a much wider potential audience for scrutiny and feedback. Some have questioned whether it is appropriate to make un-refereed findings public, but as long as such research is clearly marked ‘not yet peer reviewed’ readers can approach the work with appropriate caution.

There is also a lively debate about how open the process of peer review should be. The most basic form of open peer review involves publishing peer review reports alongside the article. This allows the reader to be able to see the scrutiny process and to know what questions have been raised (and how the authors have addressed them). But open peer review can also involve the additional step of revealing the reviewer’s identity (indeed this is more common in life sciences that only publishing the report). While fully blinded peer review may have the benefit of protecting early career scientists reviewing the work of their seniors, we should be working towards a research culture where such anxieties do not even arise, not building a peer review system around them. Fully open peer review (in which reviewers are named) provides more accountability, may encourage a better quality of review, and makes it easier for reviewers to garner credit for the valuable work they do.