The problem that Jamie Timmons flags (“Concern over tacit conflicts of interest in peer reviews”, 30 January) is one that all journals battle with, not just Plos One. All reputable journals have policies in place to ensure that handling editors and potential peer reviewers declare any conflicts of interest before embarking on peer review. However, the system is reliant on trust; from trusting that authors are real, to trusting that data are not fabricated, to trusting that reviewers and editors declare their conflicts of interest. Plos One is also not unique in publishing the name of the handling editor, on the peer-reviewed published article. And one would have thought this goes some way to ensuring the system is more transparent, by allowing the reader to identify and consider any potential bias.
Another approach to counter this problem is to use a system of fully open peer review. BioMed Central operates open peer review on the medical titles in the BMC series (and has done for the past 10 years), and more recently biology titles too, for example, Biology Direct and GigaScience. This “openness” is on two levels. The first is that authors will naturally see the reviewers’ names; the second is that if the article is published, the reading public will also see who reviewed the article and how the authors responded. It makes the process transparent, makes the reviewers more accountable and gives credit. We have found the quality of reviewer reports is higher under such a system.
Biology Direct goes further, allowing authors to select suitable reviewers from the journal’s editorial board, in a fully open and transparent way, making peer review truly collaborative. In this scenario, you could indeed have a close colleague openly handle a friend’s manuscript, but be empowered to choose the hottest critics to review the work openly without fear of accusations of bias. So yes, a potential conflict of interest does not necessarily mean wrong-doing. F1000Research values openness in its post-publication peer review approach, too.
Biology editor, BioMed Central