Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Transparency During Scientific Peer Review

F1000 Research is an Open Access publishing program which allows biomedical researchers to submit a scientific manuscript, which is subjected to a rapid in-house editorial review to confirm the appropriateness of the article:

Our editorial team will check the appropriateness of the article (including content, quality, tone and format), ensure it is intelligible and that it is written in good English. If a submission fails our initial checks, it will be returned to the authors to address the issues, and if they are not addressed satisfactorily, the article will not be accepted. If our in-house editorial team have concerns but are not completely sure whether to accept a submission, we will contact a relevant member of the Editorial Board for advice.  

The anonymous reviewer
(Photo from Wikimedia commons)
 If an article is thought to be appropriate during this rapid initial review, it is immediately published. This approach is in sharp contrast to current publishing approaches in most biomedical journals, where a manuscript is sent out to peer reviewers prior to publication. As many of us who routinely write such articles can attest, the traditional peer review approach can take months (or in some extreme cases even 1-2 years) of reviews, revisions and re-submissions, before an article is eventually published.

The F1000 Research approach avoids this lengthy pre-publication peer review, and instead focuses on a post-publication peer-review.  Selected reviewers first indicate if they approve, reject or approve the manuscript with reservations. They are then asked to comment the quality and strength of the scientific findings in the manuscript and their responses are then published alongside with the actual paper. The published manuscript can then be revised by the authors according to these comments by the reviewers. Additional researchers can also weigh in and write comments about the paper, even if they do not belong to the group of  reviewers that were specifically asked by the editorial team to review the paper. This allows the authors of a paper to take into account the comments of a broader group of fellow researcher and colleagues, especially when revising the paper. If a manuscript receives only negative reviews by the reviewers, it will be removed. It is only indexed by research databases such as PubMed if it receives two or more positive reviews. The editors of F1000 Research are still working with biomedical indexing databases to decide how to best index the multiple versions of the published manuscript as it is revised in this post-publication peer review process.
One of the most interesting aspects of this new, open review process is that the names of the reviewers are also made public. In the conventional pre-publication peer-review model,  anonymity of the reviewers is somewhat of a sacred corner-stone. It has the advantage that reviewers can be very frank in their comments, without fearing any repercussions or ill-will from the authors. The downside of this anonymity is that some peer-reviewers write scathing, non-constructive reviews and in some rare cases even abuse the anonymity to prevent the publication of manuscript by a competitor.
The obvious question is: Does such post-publication peer review work? It may be too early to tell since F1000 Research was only launched in July 2012. However, this early assessment by its publisher Rebecca Lawrence does sound very promising:

Many had predicted that our “publish first, peer review later” model would attract substandard work and that we would be inundated with poor quality articles, but we are very pleased to see that this has not been the case thus far.  Furthermore, the fact that our referees are clearly quite happy to openly criticize where they have concerns further supports our hunch that scientists will think twice before submitting sloppy articles as this will lead to open criticism of their work, which will be eternally linked to their paper by way of the article citation.

We obviously need more time to assess the scientific quality of the articles submitted as well as whether this novel post-publication peer review process actually improves the quality of the science presented in the paper as the paper is revised in accordance with the  reviewer comments. I have to admit that I am quite optimistic about this new peer-review approach because it is more similar to how we practice science. Most of the time, when scientific findings are presented at seminars or conferences, we receive feedback from non-anonymous colleagues and this feedback is extremely valuable. Most of us enjoy presenting our work to colleagues at conferences because we look forward to positive and negative comments. In the past, such feedback has been limited to the fellow researchers that happen to attend the conference. On the other hand, when articles are submitted for publication in the traditional model, we only receive feedback from 2-4 anonymous colleagues and it does not allow for a dialogue that is generally characteristic of good science. My hope is that this novel approach will allow the selected reviewers, fellow researchers and the authors of a scientific article to engage in a transparent and fruitful dialogue that will benefit all involved and help strengthen the quality of scientific research.

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