Not the only (Plos) One

February 6, 2014

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.

Elizabeth Moylan
Biology editor, BioMed Central

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Reader's comments (1)

I haven't explored enough what I will say below, which describes my first reaction when considering colateral consequences of making reviewers known to authors (but at least I have thought of it from both sides of the equation). Here is a possible problem. In a hierarchical system (which the scientific community is) openness can also result in being able to declare your power (in an open manner) by chosing how to criticise a paper, depending on whom it comes from. And by declaring your power, demand that others do you favours, without even having to ask for them. I appreciate that "the old way" of publishing moves the responsibility for fair play to the Editor. The Editorial Board is therefore a critical component of Journal choice from the author's perspective (as opposed to some new indicators… of collision). But returning to the point. I onced received 4 positive reviews of a BBSRC grant application and then a 5th one which contained two criticisms why my grant should not be funded from a reviewer who chose to disclose her name. Both criticisms were potentially correct, but they were contradictory in the sense that both could not be true at the same time and in the absence of recognising this inconsistency, the reviewer's recommendation was nonsense. This was when I was still applying as a Young Investigator and on the same round of application the post-doctoral fellow of this reviewer (who was just being promoted having made a true contribution to science) received the award, whereas I failed and could never extract a sensical explanation from BBSRC despite insisting (no surprise there). The reason for giving the example above is because I remain with mixed feelings, which return every time I need to decide whether I will disclose my identity as a reviewer (when I am given the opportunity). To this date, I have admired reading the name of the reviewer, thinking of openness. At the same time, I have wondered whether she put her name to tell me who is the boss. If someone can help me, I would appreciate it.

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