As part of Springer Nature plans to celebrate the theme of Peer Review Week 2017 “Transparency in peer review”, we organised an event for researchers to discuss what transparency in peer review means to them and ways this might be achieved. The event on September 15th was kindly hosted by University College London with over 70 researchers attending including students, post-docs and professors.
We kicked off with two talks from editors of the Nature Research journals on the publication processes at the Nature titles. Luke Fleet, Senior Editor at Nature Physics, set the scene by introducing the Nature Research portfolio and provided tips for how to select the right journal for submission – importantly, think about your audience – and how to prepare a submission. He described the editorial and peer review process at the Nature titles and the role of the Editor. Alicia Newton, Senior Editor at Nature Geoscience (pictured above), emphasised the key role of peer review, noting both its limitations and its benefits and focusing on ethical considerations. She also shared tips for how to peer review a manuscript for those starting out in peer review and flagged a new free course on peer review delivered by Nature Masterclasses.
The talks were followed by a panel discussion on transparency in peer review, with editors from Springer Nature, Alexia-Ileana Zaromytidou (Chief Editor at Nature Cell Biology), Andrew Cosgrove (Senior Editor at Genome Biology) and Elizabeth Moylan (Senior Editor for Research Integrity at BioMed Central) and academics Carolina Herrera, (Senior Post-doctoral Fellow, Imperial College London), and Mete Atature (Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge). Together they represented the views of all “actors” in the publication process – publishers, editors, reviewers, authors and readers. The panel was moderated by Elisa De Ranieri (Head of Editorial Process and Data Analytics, Nature journals).
When exploring what transparency means in the context of peer review, it was clear from the start that for some, transparency is not necessarily the answer to all of peer review’s potential problems, because it cannot fully address implicit (or explicit) bias. This was a point Carolina, as an early-career researcher, felt strongly about as she thinks that the innovative work of more junior researchers might be subject to different evaluation that that of established investigators. May be double-blind peer review has a role to play here?
In contrast, for Mete, revealing transparency in authorship is essential. He felt it was not possible to evaluate a piece of work in isolation from its context – who the authors are, what work they have done in the past, what equipment and materials they have to hand. Mete pushed the discussion beyond transparency, to remind everyone that peer review is based on the willingness of the community to make it work as a constructive process that improves the literature, and thus ultimately it does not matter what precise model of peer review is adopted as long as the community is behind it. Andrew too reiterated that any initiative taken by journals needs to be the result of an interaction with the community of authors, reviewers and readers. Perhaps a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not going to meet the needs of the different research communities.
Alexia pointed out that transparency means different things to different people, including releasing the reviewer reports alongside the paper either with or without reviewer identities. She mentioned that Nature and Nature Communications are experimenting in this direction. For Alexia, transparency also means opening up the editorial process, for example by providing detailed explanations in editorial decisions to authors, disclosing information about the expertise of reviewers, and providing feedback on decisions to reviewers as well, which is what Nature Cell Biology is doing.
Andrew explained that Genome Biology had started a trial on transparent peer review to coincide with Peer Review Week, in which the journal is going to share the reviewer reports and the authors’ response alongside publication of the article. It will be entirely voluntary if reviewers wish to reveal their identities but report content will be shown. For Andrew, transparency broadly means all actors in peer review becoming more open about what people are doing and when, as this might help to tackle issues such as fraud.Transparent peer review is already a feature of some journals’ processes at Springer Nature, including Nature Communications, which has been offering this option for submissions since January 2016.
Elizabeth argued that the open peer review initiative where reports are signed and accompany publication (as practiced on 70 BMC journals) is the most transparent form of peer review. This makes editors and reviewers more accountable, and leads to more constructive reports. However, as Mete and Carolina pointed out, the additional responsibility is not something that all reviewers will be comfortable in taking on board, without having to spend even more time on reviewing tasks. Elizabeth agreed that there are different rates of acceptance in different research fields and acknowledged that from working with COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) transparency in peer review is not linked to a particular model of peer review as such, but that there is a trust and willingness for those engaged in the process to act transparently, i.e. journals have clear policies and individuals declare their conflicts of interests and respect the confidentiality of the process. COPE have a new flowchart on what to consider when asked to peer review and revised ethical guidelines for peer reviewers.
Of course, there are also other ways in which we can increase transparency in publishing, by being open to the research process as a whole and promoting reproducibility. Innovations that are increasing transparency in this respect, as Andrew explained, include Registered Reports. This is an article format in which the rationale for a study and the proposed methodology – the “study protocol” – are pre-registered with the journal and submitted for peer review before the research takes place (and data are collected). If the reviewers are satisfied that the research question is well-framed, and the methodology is appropriate, then the “Registered Report” is accepted in principle irrespective of the outcomes of the study. This helps reduce publication bias in only publishing interesting or positive outcomes.
In conclusion, it seems that the trend for increased transparency is set to stay, and the panel was confident that we are going to see more and more innovation in the next future.
We wish to thank Hide Kurebayashi and Andrew Fisher form University College London for their help in organising this event.