Journal’s plan to review preprints aims to kill ‘desk rejects’

eLife editor says radical shift would help readers judge the real value of research, not just where it is published

August 6, 2019
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An open access pioneer’s plan to “reshape” peer review, which will see experts evaluate preprints regardless of whether they are due to be published in a particular journal, has sparked debate among academics.

Michael Eisen, editor-in-chief of eLife, said that the online periodical would start taking requests to conduct reviews of preprints on the BioRxiv server even if they had not been formally submitted to the title. The reviews themselves would then be posted on BioRxiv for everyone to read.

This would mark a significant shift from the traditional model of peer review, under which submissions are “triaged” by journal staff ahead of potential review by experts, which inform a decision on whether to publish the paper and are shared with the authors only.

Some – but not all – of the papers might then go on to be published on eLife, said Professor Eisen, professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of the online mega-publisher the Public Library of Science.

Writing on Twitter, Professor Eisen said that the shift would “get rid” of the “submit-review-accept/reject-repeat paradigm” under which academics wasted time and energy hawking their papers around journals until they eventually found a home for them.

It would also be a step towards “get[ting] rid” of journals, which he described as an “anachronism”, a “product of the historical accident that the printing press was invented before the internet”, with such organisations potentially taking on a role focused on post-publication review and curation.

Professor Eisen focused his criticism on “desk rejects”, arguing that it was “really hard to make a judgement” about a paper without properly reviewing it.

“In the long run, we don’t want to accept or reject papers – rather we just want to assess them all by simply saying what the reviewers and editors think of the work without any kind of seal of approval,” Professor Eisen said. He said that the goal was “to shift people’s attention away from the journal title as a measure of a paper’s value – which we all know doesn’t work – and towards the specific contributions of a given work of science”.

“If we do this right, we hope it will become a standard for all journals. And while it won’t immediately get rid of journal titles, we hope it will begin to undermine them,” Professor Eisen added.

Tim Vines, a consultant with Origin Editorial, who advises journals on peer review, said that the BioRxiv reviews “could be a great success” because the chance of acceptance by eLife would be a “strong draw” for many authors, with “quality reviews being the pay-off” for authors who were not selected for publication.

But he questioned who would pay for it and whether eLife would get “swamped by thousands of low-quality articles”.

Jon Tennant, a researcher at the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education, said that the proposals were “rational” and “make sense”.

Scientists were “wedded to their ways” and their behaviours were “very difficult to change”, he said. But he added: “If there is anyone who can actually shake things up, it probably is Mike.”

Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said that there was a “real temptation” among open access advocates to think you can just “build a new structure and people will flock to it”.

It was “heartening to see” that Professor Eisen’s “pragmatic” proposals were putting changes forward gradually within an existing journal structure, Professor Eve said.

nick.mayo@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Journal’s plan to review preprints aims to eliminate ‘desk rejects’

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Reader's comments (1)

Since a long time I thought this is the right solution. www.arxiv.org, could be an example if it allows the readers to add his opinions. Of course, these must be qualified readers. Then the manuscript, or pre-print, or work, as you may want to call it, could be submitted to a journal.

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