Online route may reduce delay and ease publication of sound science

Inquiry told of rise in referees' 'counter-productive' demands for extra alterations. Paul Jump reports

May 12, 2011

Credit: Harry Sheridan/Alamy
Screening criteria: PLoS ONE does not rate impact, only soundness

The rise of online journals that publish all scientifically sound articles submitted could stem the "dramatic" rise in the amount of time authors are obliged to spend defending their papers from criticism by referees, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.

Ronald Laskey, vice-president of the Academy of Medical Sciences and professor emeritus of animal embryology at the University of Cambridge, told the first hearing of the Commons Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into peer review that the "engine of peer review has not seized but is misfiring".

This was because many of the extra experiments being demanded by referees did not relate to the key themes of papers or add substantially to their value.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after the hearing last week, Professor Laskey said part of the reason for the dramatic rise in referees' demands over the past decade was the facility offered by electronic publishing for supplementary material to be added.

"You can no longer turn round to an editor and say: 'I can't get any more in because I've reached your page limit'," he explained. "There is always something more an intelligent reviewer can ask for and that is where it starts to become very counter-productive for science."

He said the use of publications for "proxy" purposes, such as promotion decisions, meant that scientists were under severe pressure to publish in journals with high impact factors. The high rejection rate of such journals resulted in "excessive effort going into trying to satisfy editors and referees, rather than pursuing the highest priority science".

Professor Laskey also expressed concern that at least some of the requests for extra experiments were motivated by unscrupulous reviewers attempting to slow down a rival's research. "I don't think it is the norm but most scientists know of cases where that appears to have happened," he said.

While he said he was pleased that some journals were beginning to introduce limits on supplementary materials, he doubted that this would be a complete answer.

He said the emergence of journals such as PLoS ONE, an online journal that reviews papers solely for their soundness rather than their impact, could also help.

PLoS ONE has spawned a number of imitators and Professor Laskey noted that its impact factor was rising more quickly than many had predicted - partly because it was used by scientists who were rejected by their first-choice journal and who were in a hurry to publish in case they were "scooped".

He was worried by the difficulties his younger colleagues now had in getting sound work published: "Science has become a tougher career and you can't afford to have too many fallow years where you are struggling to get work published."

On the select committee's inquiry, he said that the peer review system deserved attention, but speculated that fear of a legislative response explained the "cautious" treatment of the committee's questions by the witnesses at the first hearing, all of whom represented learned societies.

Graham Stringer, one of the select committee members, said it had been given a "desiccated view" of peer review.

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