Journals sharing peer reviewers to speed virus research

Publisher coalition also embracing assessments through preprint formats

May 2, 2020
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A coalition of open-access academic journals is working to tackle the flood of virus-related research by coordinating their review processes, in a model with potential application beyond the current crisis.

The publishers − including Plos, eLife, F1000 Research, Hindawi and PeerJ − have committed to create a common pool of experts who are willing to quickly assess journal submissions with the understanding their reviews will be shared with all participants.

The coalition is also working to encourage scientists to comment on papers in preprint formats, with promises to incorporate that input into their decisions on whether to consider and to accept papers for formal publication.

The move is an attempt to manage an avalanche of research article submissions to publishers about Covid-19 at a time when even small advances might save lives.

“We are hearing directly from front-line reviewers that they’re just getting everything, because publishers don’t want to miss anything,” said Dan Morgan, the director of community relations at Plos.

That rush of interest among scientists in fighting the coronavirus pandemic has also raised concern that too many submissions are of low quality. That further complicates the job of improving tests for Covid-19 and developing treatments and cures, Mr Morgan said.

Publishers pondering the peer-review bottleneck concluded that too much time and effort was being wasted in the traditional system of each journal finding its own experts to separate wheat from chaff.

Instead, Mr Morgan said, the participating journals are now assembling a single list of reviewers with expertise relative to Covid-19. The journals are also sharing their reviews, to avoid the potential waste of one manuscript undergoing repeated assessments.

So far, the reviewer list contains the names of more than 800 volunteers with expertise applicable to the pandemic, he said.

The participating publishers, and the open-science advocacy community more generally, are looking at the idea as a solution borne of necessity that could produce benefits well past the coronavirus pandemic.

Human mistakes are inevitable in scientific discovery and peer assessment, said Brian Nosek, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Open Science. The solutions include making peer review much more of a shared and ongoing process, Dr Nosek said.

“This initiative is a nice, small step in that direction,” said Dr Nosek, a University of Virginia psychology professor whose organisation creates online tools to improve the openness and reproducibility of science.

Researchers have accelerated their communications during past threats of pandemics, said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a group that represents academic and research libraries. This is their first chance to do it in the era of preprint servers in biomedicine, and the publishers are trying to help, she added.

“They are not doing this to put their journal name brands on papers, or to claim credit for papers,” Ms Joseph said of the publishers. “It’s an admirable effort at a critical moment.”

It is not clear, however, how many others will join them, especially outside the world of open-access publishing. The only publisher among the initial eight signatories with any subscription-based journals is the UK-based Royal Society.

Representatives of several major traditional academic publishers said they were considering the initiative, while noting they already had been taking steps to help during the crisis, including making articles related to the coronavirus freely available outside their subscription paywalls.

A spokeswoman for Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said its actions also include compressing its normal review timelines from months down to weeks, even with much higher volumes. The journal continues to encourage researchers to share their data and use preprint servers, said the Science and AAAS spokeswoman, Tiffany Lohwater.

Springer Nature’s journals are also urging the early sharing through preprint formats of research submitted to them, spokeswoman Rachel Scheer said. Elsevier is willing to consider the model of shared reviewers but has not yet been presented with details of the idea, spokesman Andrew Davis said.

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