New Directions In Scientific Peer Review

Most scientists have a need-hate relationship with scientific peer review. We know that we need some form of peer review, because it is an important quality control measure that is supposed to help prevent the publication of scientifically invalid results. However, we also tend to hate scientific peer review in its current form, because we have had many frustrating experiences with it.

We recently submitted a manuscript to a journal, where it was stuck for more than one year, undergoing multiple rounds revisions in response to requests by the editors and the reviewers, after which they finally rejected it. The reviewers did not necessarily question the validity of our results, but they wanted us to test additional cell lines, confirm many of the findings with multiple methods and identify additional mechanisms that might explain our findings so that the paper started ballooning in size. I was frustrated because I felt that there was no end in sight. There are always novel mechanisms that one has not investigated. A scientific paper is not meant to investigate every possible explanation for a phenomenon, because that would turn the paper into a never-ending saga –every new finding usually raises even more questions.

We received a definitive rejection after multiple rounds of revisions (taking more than a year), but I was actually relieved because the demands of the reviewers were becoming quite excessive. We resubmitted the manuscript to a different journal, for which we had to scale back the manuscript. The new journal had different size restrictions and some of the revisions only made sense in the context of those specific reviewer requests and did not necessarily belong in the manuscript. This new set of reviewers also made some requests for revisions, but once we had made those revisions, the manuscript was published within a matter of months.

I have also had frustrating experiences as a scientific peer reviewer. Some authors completely disregard suggestions for improving the manuscript, and it is really up to the individual editors to decide who they side with. Scientific peer review in its current form also does not involve testing for reproducibility. As reviewers, we have to accept the authors’ claims that they have conducted sufficient experiments to test the reproducibility and validity of their data. Reviewers do not check whether their own laboratory or other laboratories can replicate the results described in the manuscript. Scientific peer reviewers have to rely on the scientific integrity of the authors, even if their gut instinct tells them that these results may not be reproducible by other laboratories.

Due to these experiences, many scientists like to say that the current peer review system is “broken”, and we know that we need radical changes to make the peer review process more reliable and fair. There are two new developments in scientific peer review that sound very interesting: Portable peer review and open peer review.

Richard Van Noorden describes the concept of portable peer review that will soon be offered by a new company called Rubriq, which will conduct the scientific peer review and provide the results for a fee to the editors of the journal. Interestingly, Rubriq will also pay peer reviewers, something which is quite unusual in the current peer review system, which relies on scientists volunteering their time as peer reviewers.  The basic idea is that if journal rejects a paper after the peer review conducted by Rubriq, the comments of the reviewers would still used by the editors of the new journal as long as it also subscribes to the Rubriq service. This would cut down on the review time at the new journal, because the editors could base their decision of acceptance or rejection on the existing reviews instead of sending out the paper for another new, time consuming review. I like this idea, because it “recycles” the efforts of the first round of review and will likely streamline the review process. My only concern is that reviewers currently use different review criteria, depending on what journal they review for. When reviewing for a “high prestige” journal, reviewers tend to set a high bar for novelty and impact and their comments likely reflect this. It may not be very easy for editors to use these reviews for a very different journal. Furthermore, editors get to know their reviewers over time and pick certain reviewers that they believe will give the most appropriate reviews for a submitted manuscript. I am not sure that editors of journals would be that pleased by “farming out” this process to a third party.

The second new development is the concept of open peer review, as proposed by the new open access scientific journal PeerJ. I briefly touched on this when discussing a paper on the emotional impact of genetic testing, but I would like to expand on this, because I am very intrigued by the idea of open peer review. In this new peer review system, the scientific peer reviewers can choose to either remain anonymous or disclose their names. One would think that peer reviewers should be able to stand by their honest, constructive peer reviews so there should be no need for anonymity. On the other hand, some scientists might worry about (un)professional repercussions because some authors may be offended by the critiques. Therefore, I think it is quite reasonable that PeerJ permits anonymity of the reviewers.

The true novelty of the open review system is that the authors can choose to disclose the peer review correspondence, which includes the initial comments by the reviewers as well as their own rebuttal and revisions. I think that this is a very important and exciting development in peer review. It forces the peer reviewers to remain civil and reasonable in their comments. Even if a reviewer chooses to remain anonymous, they are probably still going to be more thoughtful in their reviews of the manuscript if they realize that potentially hundreds or thousands of other scientists could have a peek at their comments. Open peer review allows the public and the scientific community to peek behind the usually closed doors of scientific peer reviews. This provides a certain form of public accountability for the editors. They cannot just arbitrarily accept or reject manuscripts without good reasons, because by opening up the review process to the public they may have to justify their decisions based on the reviews they solicited. One good example for the civil tone and reasonable review requests and responses can be found in the review of the BRCA gene testing paper. The reviewers (one of them chooses to remain anonymous) ask many excellent questions, including questions about the demographics and educational status of the participants. The authors’ rebuttal to some of the questions was that they did not collect the data and cannot include it in the manuscript, but they also expand some of the presented data and mention caveats of their study in the revised discussion. The openness of the review process now permits the general reader to take advantage of the insights of the reviewers, such as the missing information about the educational status of the participants.

The open review system is one of the most important new advances in scientific peer review and I hope that other journals (even the more conservative, traditional and non-open access journals) will implement a similar open peer review system. This will increase accountability of reviewers and editors, and hopefully improve the efficiency and quality of scientific peer review.