Open peer review is the key to tackling public health misinformation

Researchers need to be confident enough to lift the veil on the debate that is at the heart of scientific progress, says Rebecca Lawrence

June 18, 2022
Contest judges hold up their scores, symbolising open peer review
Source: iStock

Barely a month into a global outbreak of monkeypox and science is already battling misinformation. As the Covid pandemic showed, being more connected than ever globally – through extensive travel and rapid exchange of digitised information – presents unprecedented challenges to scientists in both fighting disease and promoting scientific truth.

Digital, open access publication helped scientists share data and collaborate for the good of global public health. Greater open data policies have improved access to the data underpinning research discoveries. Meanwhile, preprints have enabled faster communication of research findings. But these shifts have not, by themselves, dispelled the conspiracies. I would also argue that the missing piece of the jigsaw is open, de-anonymised peer review.

This may seem counterintuitive. The counter argument runs that a “black box” approach to peer review enhances public trust in science by masking the contention that is always part of real-life science, thereby projecting a sense of certainty. I disagree. There are numerous cases where the closed system of review has led to serious errors and the promotion of bad science, which undermined public confidence and led to significant public detriment. The MMR controversy and various subsequently retracted Covid-19 studies are just two examples. And, worse, such failures can fuel the fire of misinformation and conspiracy theorising.

What we’re talking about here is accountability for science and public confidence. Information alone is no longer enough. A 2021 MIT paper illustrated how online discussions that were anti-public health were not data-empty but used datasets from official sources to share “counter visualisations” to argue the opposite of the public health advice based on the original data. It’s a complex picture and we need to acknowledge that we cannot temper what some people may read into published science solely through scientific method and shared data.

We also need to recognise that science isn’t black and white. Rather than clear-cut facts, there are typically different viewpoints in many areas of research, and even where there is broad consensus, there are many examples of further investigation revealing the theory in question to be incorrect.

Researchers need to be confident enough to lift the veil on what is at the heart of scientific progress: evidence-based hypotheses tested in the crucible of experiment, data collection, analysis and peer debate. It can only help build trust in science if the public have more insight into why researchers can sometimes say one thing one minute and the next minute say something else. Readers and users of research need not only to know if new findings have been reviewed by experts but to transparently see for themselves who has reviewed them and what they said about them.

There are also strong arguments that open peer review enhances the research process itself. Open peer review offers the science community an opportunity not just to transparently test arguments but to better understand others’ viewpoints, contribute to the debate, and lead by example as to how science can productively be discussed and examined in the public realm.

With increasing concerns around research reproducibility and research integrity, we need more eyes on new findings to spot issues and concerns. We also need greater sharing of the fundamentals behind the research itself, such as the methods used or the data and materials the conclusions are based on.

Peer review has traditionally been conducted anonymously and behind closed doors. Only the journal editor knows who the reviewers are, what they said and whether they did a thorough job. And only the editor knows how much he or she drew on those reviews to make their decision on whether to accept or reject the manuscript. There is no true accountability, and little credit for the reviewers.

Fundamentally, open peer review is about having faith that the sunlight of debate and discussion, driven by scientific expertise, really will disinfect the toxic misinformation that is such a threat to science and public health alike.

Rebecca Lawrence is managing director of F1000.

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