Ariberto Fassati of the Division of Infection and Immunity, University College London Medical School, writes in Correspondence in this week’s Nature (447, 528; 2007):
Sydney Brenner and Richard Robert’s request in Correspondence (Nature 446, 725; 2007) for authors to conserve records of their work and make them freely accessible is of great importance to historians of science.
However, unlike an artist’s preparatory sketches or a novelist’s drafts, scientific papers describing major discoveries have gone through the process of peer review. Reviewers often make significant contributions in shaping discoveries. They suggest new experiments, propose novel interpretations and reject some papers outright. Clearly, this is also important ‘behind the scenes’ work by scientists usually at the forefront of their discipline, and is an intrinsic part of the scientific process. It is well worth keeping a record of such work, for no history of science will be complete and accurate without it.
I therefore propose that journals’ records should be made publicly available after an adequate lapse of time, including the names of reviewers and the confidential comments exchanged between editors and reviewers. The Nobel Foundation makes all its records available after 50 years, as do many governmental and other institutions. This delay may be reduced for scientific journals to, perhaps, 15 or 20 years. This is also likely to have a positive impact on the peer-review process itself.
The scientific community and future historians will gain from this transparency and from full knowledge of all the events that have contributed to a great discovery.