Nature shift signals ‘new era’ of peer review transparency

Journal’s decision to publish reviewer reports shows a growing consensus on transparency, publishers claim

February 18, 2020
Source: Getty

Nature’s decision to publish peer review reports alongside journal papers indicates that there is a growing consensus that peer review should be open, experts agreed.

Earlier this month, the prestigious Springer Nature title announced that it would offer authors the option of having anonymous referee reports published, alongside their own responses and rebuttals, once a manuscript is ready. Reviewers can choose to be named if they wish.

It is the latest publisher to allow readers to see discussions between authors and reviewers, following the Swiss-based group MDPI and the Public Library of Science (Plos) stable of titles, which made the switch last year. The move came after dozens of journal editors signed an open letter, published in February 2018, calling for peer review reports to be made public.

However, Ritu Dhand, vice-president at Nature Journals, told Times Higher Education that it was “pretty unusual for a journal of Nature’s calibre” to make the switch, despite the practice’s growing popularity elsewhere.

“It is pretty edgy for us,” said Dr Dhand, who added that the “anxiety [about including peer review reports] came mainly from referees” whose comments on papers would now be made public, albeit with reviewers retaining the option of remaining anonymous. “It raises the bar if people can see what they have written,” she added.

Publishing the peer review comments would demystify the roles played by editors, reviewers and authors in the publication process, Dr Dhand added. “One of the big criticisms of peer review is that it is a black box – people don’t see the types of comments that are being made,” she said. “We are definitely going towards an era of more transparency – of which I am a huge advocate – which is really what this trial is all about,” said Dr Dhand, who added that the trial follows a similar move by Nature Communications, which has published peer review reports since 2016.

Despite concerns that reviewers who make critical comments might face a backlash if they are named, 80 per cent of Nature’s papers now have at least one referee named, Dr Dhand said.

The inclusion of peer review reports might result in named reviewers facing serious public attacks, some have argued, leading them to soften criticism for fear of being seen as too harsh.

Authors could also be resistant to the inclusion of peer review reports, explained Matt Hodgkinson, who oversees research integrity at Hindawi, an open access publisher.

“From an author’s perspective, they may feel that the peer review process gives them the chance to iron out any wrinkles in their work, but now you are just showing the wrinkles again,” said Mr Hodgkinson, who added that some mistakes spotted by referees, such as privacy breaches, could be “highly embarrassing” for authors if published.

“That kind of thinking is becoming less prevalent with the advent of preprints, where these errors are often now caught,” added Mr Hodgkinson.

Asked if this kind of peer review would become the norm, Mr Hodgkinson said many journals might be held back by technology – in particular, the need to change journal submission infrastructure. “But the consensus is clearly forming that there is some value in posting these reports,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Nature joins see-through peer review crew

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Reader's comments (3)

Then they should also publish the papers which have been rejected and their reviews. In which case those rejected papers would be 'published'...
Its a little like 'ground hog day' to see Transparent Peer Review re-announced again as an innovation - EMBO Press's (https://www.embopress.org) scientific journals have had this policy for over 10 years and almost all authors and referees embrace it enthusiastically (see e.g. https://www.nature.com/articles/468029a) - the only difference is that we more thoroughly 'demystify the roles played by editors' by also publishing the editorial decision letters and author communication alongside the referee reports. We use very similar referees as Nature and have a similarly strong selection process (I assume that is what 'calibre' refers to in this context) and we can state with some authority after all this time that there are no concrete issues that make this particularly 'edgy' in 2020. Indeed, the British Medical Journal group has even longer experience with open peer review (including referee identities). It is great to see a publishing standard emerge which helps adds credit and accountability for referees, which helps train new referees and contextualize increasingly complex research papers.
This is long overdue. Many years ago, when I was grad student/post-doc pondering a career in academia (ah to be young and foolish again ;-). I was on the receiving end of some fairly harsh reviews, where it seemed that the reviewer had utterly missed the point of the research and instead focusing on their disagreement with some specific premise of the work and using that to utterly rubbish the project. After several hours of unnecessary work in which I systematically dismantled their objections, my paper was sent to another reviewer and then published with minor revisions. Yes, Yes ... I KNOW, oh Lord do I know.... this is an anecdote .... a case report .... n of 1. But this change by Nature does seem to grant my feelings some vindication. we're talking "Nature" here. NATURE!!! We're not talkin' 'bout the Dothraki Journal of Mildly Interesting Stuff. But "Nature". Let it sink in. I would be curious to see how many uselessly harsh reviews, replete with ad hominem attacks, will be coming out now.

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