New practices in scientific peer review

Tuesday, 18 June 2013 in Science by Astrid Pellieux

For years, the peer review process ensures the scientific quality of a research work. Originally used by journals in order to provide reliable contents to their readership, the peer review system evolves with the development of information and communication technologies. Blogs, social networks, etc. are good examples of tools allowing new peer review practices, such as open peer review or post-publication peer review. Those new practices provide an alternative way to the traditional process which is currently questioned. As a consequence and to respond to the scientists’ needs, some journals also involves themselves by providing new peer review models.

Many journals whose reputation depend on the number of times their articles had been cited (Impact Factor) attach a great importance to peer review. Only papers which are judged valuable and reliable by scientific experts are allowed to be publish. The reviewers (known as the referees) assess the efficiency, originality and significance of a paper, and track all wrongdoing like plagiarism. For ensuring this quality control, many journals follow some criteria. For example, one decisive element of many eLife editors is the contribution of a paper to the opening of new areas of exploration. Thus, the advantages of peer review are obvious considering the quality aspect. However, the way it is sometimes implemented is widely questioned. For example, the fact that reviewers are usually anonymous to the article’s author, but not vice versa, raises many doubts among the scientific community. Many researchers argue that this so-called single-blind review could lead to many publication bias due to some reviewer’s preconceived assumption. Another point which provides criticism is that reviewers don’t get any credits for their work. Finally, the time lapse between the submission of an article and its publication is also a big problem. Several months, if not a year, are usually needed before an article is finally published.

The development of information and communication technologies greatly change the way science is spread around the world. The emergence of the Open Science movement and the development of the social web lead to new peer review practices such as open peer review or post-publication peer review. In the open peer review, the identity of the reviewer is made publicly available to enhance the transparency of science. The post-publication peer review corresponds to the assessment of a study already published in a scientific journal. Blogs and social networks play an important role in these new practices. A good example is the blog post of Rosie Redfield of the University of British Columbia in which she has reconsidered the results of an arsenic-associated bacteria study from NASA published in 2010 in Science. Her review of this article especially shows the non-reproducibility of the study. See our previous blog post on data reproducibility to find more information on the subject. The controversy around this arsenic-associated bacteria study was also vividly discussed on Twitter through the use of the #arseniclife hashtag. Many other examples exist. To find some of those blog posts related to peer-reviewed work, ResearchBlogging works as an aggregator and provides good results.

First Pigment Analysis Flickr
First Pigment Analysis, NASA ICE gallery, Flickr. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

So, researchers can nowadays more easily involve themselves in the quality control of a research work. To encourage them in this direction, many web services appears. For instance, PubPeer allows researchers to find and comment articles online. Another good example is which provides a platform where researchers can submit their work to their peers. Moreover, to help researchers to find the most reliable study, web services are specialized in providing post publication reviews. That’s notably the case of Journal Watch and F1000Prime. Similar services dedicated to the peer reviewing of papers from open repositories also exist. They add value to the green way of Open Access by providing reviews of papers that have never been reviewed before. For example, a soon coming platform known as the project aims to peer review articles deposited in open repositories like arXiv or HAL.

To respond to the scientists’ needs, some journals also involves themselves by providing new peer review models. For example, both Biology Direct and PeerJ propose an open peer review model where reviewers aren’t anonymous and where their reports are made publicly available. Another example of peer review model is the one of Philica. Any articles submitted to this journal will immediately be published without pre-publication peer reviews. The reviews will take place afterwards by any anonymous researchers who wish to. Each comments are automatically made publicly available. F1000Research also provides immediate publication without pre-publication peer reviews (the journal just performs internal check for flagrant inappropriateness). Contrary to Philica, the reviews will take place afterward by non anonymous referees.

To conclude, new aspirations concerning the peer review process appeared among the scientific community. More openness and more rapidity are asked by many researchers. Solutions come from the social web whose tools (blogs, etc.) provide alternative ways to the traditional peer review process. As a consequence new reviewing models develop such as Open peer review and post-publication peer review.

For more information, see:
How Scientific Peer Review Works -