Image reproduced from Biogeosciences
Post by ASAPbio Fellow Aditi Sengupta
Preprints are increasingly becoming a tool to support the peer-review process and aid rapid dissemination of research results. The increased transparency in the review process that preprints can support has been welcomed by many journals with many pivoting to an environment of supporting preprints. A few examples include editorial policies that allow or encourage deposition of manuscripts at preprint servers (e.g. Springer Nature journals), partnering with platforms like Review Commons which provide journals with high-quality referee reports to reduce re-review rounds and shorten the publishing process (e.g. Review Commons affiliate journals), and partnering with preprint servers to allow authors to submit preprints to both the journal submission system and the preprint server (e.g. Development, PLOS).
Another innovative way to engage with preprints is for journals to facilitate community review of the submitted manuscripts on their own website. For example, all European Geosciences Union’s (EGU) journals post manuscripts as preprints on the journals’ discussion forums for public peer review in the form of invited referee comments, author comments, editor comments, and community comments. This allows journal-coordinated reviews and open community reviews to take place in parallel, with authors responding to the reviews publicly, contributing to an open discussion, and supporting a transparent peer-review process. This opens up the peer-review process to the broader scientific community, and potentially integrates community reviews and editor-coordinated reviews to deliver a polished peer-reviewed article.
To understand the operations of this peer-review model, we interviewed a former, and a current, associate editor of Biogeosciences as part of the 2022 ASAPbio Fellows program. Biogeosciences is an open-access EGU journal that publishes papers on the interactions between the biological, chemical, and physical processes in terrestrial or extraterrestrial life. As a current associate editor, Dr. Denise Akob handles submissions in astrobiology, exobiology, biogeochemistry, and geomicrobiology. Dr. Akob noted that EGU’s discussion-based process has many positives, including “lifting the veil” of the peer-review process. Public discussion/posting of review and responses allows all stakeholders to objectively understand the process, and is especially valuable to early career researchers for whom the process may have training and educational value. Dr. Akob noted that open peer review “forces reviewers to be constructive and kind”, and to constructively structure feedback to improve the science. The public discussion piece is particularly helpful in creating an atmosphere of conversation between authors, editors, reviewers, and the community, thereby opening a space for dialogue.
An open peer review process also “potentially encourages authors to submit higher quality work since the feedback will be public”, notes Dr. Ben Bond-Lamberty, a previous associate editor at the journal. There is a possibility that such open reviews, when not positive, can affect the credibility of the study and/or the authors but Dr. Bond-Lamberty highlights how “having more eyes on the study has the likelihood of improving the research, and improves the odds of detecting data manipulation or other problems”.
Dr. Akob and Dr. Bond-Lamberty noted that in their editorial role, they do not request that invited reviewers take into account public comments, but as editors they do pay attention to these comments and may request the authors to respond to them. This may provide particular buy-in value to journals interested in innovating their peer-review process, given that community reviews available on the discussion board hosted by the journal itself can be more easily integrated into the official review process compared to reviews hosted on a third-party platform.
When discussing preprints as a communication format for research findings, neither of the editors had encountered hesitancy towards preprints from the broader discipline-specific scientific community, irrespective of career stages. A challenge however arises with governmental agencies that may have additional approval steps in place to publish a preprint, this may be a deterrent to preprint for those who are employed in such agencies.
The concept of preprints is fast gaining traction across disciplines and will continue to evolve as journals get a better idea of what works and what does not in the context of their editorial processes. For example, eLife recently announced (Eisen et al.) a new editorial process that eliminates acceptance/rejection decisions after peer review. Instead, eLife will publish every paper that it reviews as a Reviewed Preprint that includes the manuscript and the journal’s peer reviews, with the goal of producing public peer reviews that highlight the science and include an assessment of the rigor and significance of the findings. This model steps away from the traditional route of peer review and provides an indication that journals are ready to experiment and drive forward a transparent peer-review process that provides more autonomy to authors.
Dr. Bond-Lamberty comments that
“the science publishing world will be a mix of preprints and traditional articles for the foreseeable future, but having open and quantifiable records of the review process will be increasingly common”
with the possibility of performing meta-research on the reviews. Analysis of such metadata including demographics of people engaging with the peer-review process and their career stages may yield relevant ethnographic details of publishing in the STEM fields. Some disciplines may lead and others lag in implementing models that incorporate preprints but an overall fine-tuning of the process stands to vastly improve the quality of papers, establish transparency, and support timely completion of the peer-review process.