Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A step towards open peer review

Peer review is the cornerstone of how we decide what research to publish. As currently implemented, it generally consists of two or three referees giving anonymous comments on a research article prior to publication ... or ... rejection. Much has been written about the failings of this process (a very small sample of illustrative references are given below). A few brave new journals are exploring new models of peer review, driving more openness, notable examples being the BMJ and F1000 Research, while software and standards that enable comments on web pages make post-publication peer review technically possible. Why then, given decades of both grumbling and discussion, do we still cling to a process that was invented for a different technological era? Open and post publication peer review represents a sea change in behaviour across a community: we are a conservative lot and this will not happen fast, which is probably for the good as not everything about peer review is wrong.
One of the issues at the heart of the matter is that peer review is something that every researcher spends time doing, for which they receive no credit, in spite of the generally agreed opinion that it is a Good Thing. The lack of credit is exacerbated by the culture of anonymity that surrounds peer review - how can you be credited publicly for something that can only be seen by a handful of people?
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Enter Publons: a start-up that aims to help researchers get credit for peer review (ref. Wikipedia). They have quite nimbly navigated the complexities of anonymity and credit by putting you, the user, in control of how much to reveal of yourself as a reviewer. By sending Publons the acknowledgement email received on completion of a review, Publons adds a note that you have reviewed for that journal in a given year - which suits classic-style anonymous reviews. If you wish, you can upload the review you wrote, make it public (unless the journal forbids it), and link it to your profile. Publons assigns points for each review, so the more reviews you register, and the more open you get, the higher your score. As yet, the review stubs are not pushed to ORCID, although you can use ORCID to log in and display your ORCID iD on your Publons profile page. See Alex Bateman's profile as a nice example:

Via the Europe PMC External Links Service*, there are now almost 40,000 links from articles in Europe PMC to reviews on Publons. While open pre-publication reviews are still only available in a minority of cases (see for example:, the framework is nevertheless there to build on this more open behaviour. We except the number of available reviews to grow as Publons partners with publishers, reviewers get bolder, and post-publication options are used.

Just one grumble (there had to be one somewhere): browsing the reviewers on the Publons website, the gender balance, or lack of it, is striking. I counted only ~6 women in the top 100 reviewers. Whether this is an artefact of the early adopters of Publons or indicative of deeper bias in the peer review system, more openness can only inform.

*The Europe PMC External Links Service was launched in 2013 and is a mechanism for people to publish links from articles in Europe PMC to related information or tools. The service has enabled articles on Europe PMC to be enriched with links to content as varied as data, press releases, and article full text (where it’s not already held by Europe PMC).
All of our External Links providers can be discovered by using our advanced search page – the field at the bottom of the form. You can find out more about the Europe PMC External Links Service and how to get involved here.
Contributed by Jo McEntyre (@jomcentyre) and Anna Kinsey.

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