The open research movement strives to achieve transparency and accessibility of research and its data. It has brought many positive changes including open access, open data, open infrastructure, and open research to mainstream science.
In line with this objective of achieving transparency, it is equally important to focus on open peer review, a process that has gained momentum in recent times. Many publishers of scientific resources are now coming forward to experiment with the open peer review process as a way to determine the quality and authenticity of manuscript submissions.
What is open peer review?
Peer review is a pillar of scientific research and communication that validates and qualifies the published resources. According to a survey by the Publishing Research Consortium, nearly 82% of researchers agreed that without peer review, there would be no control in scientific communication.
From the systematic analysis of several peer-review methods, Tony Ross-Hellauer, leader of the Open and Reproducible Research Group (ORRG) at the Graz University of Technology, Austria, derived a curated definition of open peer review. Open peer review (OPR) is an umbrella term that covers numerous overlapping ways by which peer review can be applied to achieve open science.
Many scholarly publications such as PLOS journals, BMJ Open, Nature Communications, BMC journals, Royal Society Open Science, BJGP, and Access Microbiology employ or plan to employ OPR in their publishing process.
Tony Ross-Hellauer introduces a schema of seven OPR traits that bring accountability and transparency to traditional peer review methods.
- Open identities – Making both the author and the reviewer aware of each other with open identities.
- Open reports – Publishing open review reports alongside the article that has been reviewed.
- Open participation – Encouraging a wider contribution to the peer review process through open participation.
- Open pre-review manuscripts – Making manuscripts immediately available prior to any formal peer review through preprint servers.
- Open final version commenting – Enabling comments in the final version of the published record.
- Open interaction – Allowing interaction between the author and the reviewer to facilitate discussions on the review comments.
- Open platforms – Availability of decoupled, open platforms for peer review that are run by organizations other than the publisher.
What are the benefits of open peer review?
Transparency of the review process
Openness in the identities of the author and the reviewer brings transparency to the otherwise blinded peer-review process. This encourages constructive, better quality feedback rather than simply rejecting the paper.
The traditional peer review process is usually a time-intensive process. In some cases, it can even take up to one year from the date of submission to final publication. The traditional method would lead to repetitions of peer review when an article is submitted to one journal after being rejected by another one. This issue can be resolved with the trait ‘open pre-review manuscript’ in the OPR system.
Manuscripts are made available through preprint servers. This helps ensure wide participation through open platforms and thereby reduces the overall review time.
Better accountability of the research
The quality of current scientific publications is at stake. Plagiarism or inconsistent outputs are some of the disastrous consequences of a flawed peer review system. Retraction Watch lists a number of scientific papers that fail the quality benchmark of the industry.
The OPR process makes the identification of any inconsistencies in research communications easier. For Better Science and PubPeer are some of the platforms that provide open discussion and feedback mechanisms about the authenticity of scientific research papers.
Acknowledgment and credits for peer reviewers
Peer reviewers are often unacknowledged despite the time and effort spent by them. The critical task of validating scientific publications ought to be rightly recognized. OPR offers the reviewers the opportunity to claim credit for their contribution.
Each published review report can be assigned with a DOI, making it a citable resource. This can be linked with the reviewer’s ORCID ID to acknowledge and credit their body of knowledge.
What are the challenges of an open peer review system?
Fear of retaliation
It is argued that transparency in author and reviewer identities creates bias and retaliation. This is true especially in cases where junior scientists are at the beginning of their careers. They have the fear of retaliation by criticizing well-established, senior scientists on whom they depend for career opportunities.
This misconception influenced the need for anonymity in peer review. But it does not imply that blinded review provides protection against harassment. According to studies, blinded reviews fail in nearly 10 to 32% of cases.
But the objective of OPR is to bring integrity to the whole process. The open peer review system aims to alleviate the fear of retaliation by making the entire process transparent. Any form of misconduct can be called out, open to public scrutiny.
Ethical and policy guidelines for peer reviews help to keep instances of harassment and misconduct in check. Some of the journals and institutions that have exclusive guidelines for peer reviews are COPE, Council of Science Editors, ICMJE, and Wiley.
In OPR, a junior researcher’s review report is open to the public and can be viewed and evaluated by anyone. Therefore, if a reviewer has contributed high-quality, constructive criticisms, this can be seen as a way to boost their credibility in the research community.
Unwillingness to accept signed peer review
Earlier, publishers faced a lack of reviewers who were willing to review openly and see their review report in print. Over time, this initial challenge is gradually being overcome.
In 1999, 19% of peer reviewers declined to participate in an open peer review process. However, another study carried out nearly two decades later revealed that only 18 out of 3,293 invitees declined a signed peer-review. This indicates a significant shift in the outlook towards a transparent peer review process. Several publishers have now moved to an OPR system that promotes openness in science.
Quality of the peer review report
It is often perceived that the peer reviewers would not be comfortable with giving genuine and critical feedback in their review reports because of the transparency in reviewer identity.
According to a survey conducted at the British Journal of Surgery (BJS), the quality of OPR was found to be lower than the traditional peer review methods. In contradiction, a study by BMJ reports no difference in the quality of OPR. There is much scope for further discussion and research in this area.
How can the challenges be overcome?
Every aspect of bringing openness to science faces the brunt of conventional barriers. A workshop on open peer view by OpenAIRE in 2016 presented some of the following solutions.
Applying different models of OPR
The multi-stage model by the journal ACP strives to bring together the strengths of traditional peer review and the goal of achieving transparency. A fully citable and archived paper is published in preprint servers, which is available for public commentary and interactive discussions. After the public review and a final round of edits, the paper is all set to be published in a journal.
This model serves as an evolutionary phase between the traditional and OPR processes.
The gray literature model is applied through valuable discussions in blogs and social media platforms post publication of the research article. This model provides direct feedback to the author(s) from the public.
Guidelines have to be enforced to validate and moderate the discussions and comments and make them a citable reference along with the published article.
Standardizing terminology and workflow
According to a discussion panel in OpenAIRE, led by Pierre Mounier, Deputy Director of OpenEdition, right from the terminology to the workflows in OPR, everything needs to be standardized in order to simplify the process. Existing infrastructure such as open access repositories like PubMed, arXiv, OpenDOAR, etc. can be utilized as a functional evaluation platform.
Tony Ross-Hellauer, in his article ‘Guidelines for open peer review implementation’, says it is critical to frame a standardized OPR workflow that includes prioritizing primary goals, communicating with research communities, planning cost and infrastructure, and performance evaluation.
Incentivizing peer reviewers
The gradual change in the outlook of OPR can be achieved by incentivizing and motivating the contributors by giving them credit for their work.
In the Political Methodologist, 2015 issue, Danilo Freire states that open peer review creates incentives for reviewers to write insightful reports. He also says that by assigning a DOI to the review it can be shared as a citable resource highlighting the reviewer’s body of knowledge in that discipline. This precise information enhances a reviewer’s résumé which could encourage more participation and motivate people towards a career in peer review.
Implementing mandates and a common code of conduct
For the benefit of both authors and reviewers, a common code of conduct must be derived and implemented. This can help address the challenges regarding misconduct and rejection of invitations to OPR.
Apart from the other solutions, it is crucial to implement mandates and policies at the institutional, editorial, and international levels that support the cause of open science through OPR.
General perception and attitude towards open identities and transparency in peer review have changed over time. The OPR system is a significant step forward in the scientific community’s journey towards open science. Prioritizing the primary goals that form the backbone of OPR will enable us to build the best strategy for implementing this system.
Successful open peer review calls for collaboration between authors, editors, reviewers, and publishers to design and implement systems that work for all stakeholders involved.
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