Painful publishing – whose fault?

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In the five years since the publication of the ‘Painful publishing’ letter in Science by Martin Raff , Alexander Johnson and Peter Walter, and the four since we (then Journal of Biology, now BMC Biology) started our experimental re-review opt-out policy, many voices have been raised in protest at the tyranny (sic) of reviewers, and solutions of various kinds have been offered – among the recent ones perhaps most prominently by eLife, and most radically by F1000Research.

 

 

The editorial leash

The aim of all of them, whatever their approach, is to reduce the frustration of authors who find current peer review practices obstructive to the point of being destructive. Our approach, inspired by the personal experience of Peter Walter with a submission that became particularly badly mired in editorial delays, is to offer authors the opportunity to opt out of re-review once their manuscripts have been revised (even if substantively) in the light of referees’ comments. In the course of the four years since its inception, our policy has been refined – though not significantly modified –  in the light of experience, and we have answers to some important and interesting questions: for example, whether  referees are still willing to assess papers if they may not be asked to sign off on revisions (yes they are), and what proportion of authors opt out (about half). To summarize the current operation of our policy, we have published an overview in Q&A format that provides the answers to some obvious questions, including the two posed above, as well as the central one of whether the policy increases the risk of publishing unsound papers (we think not, obviously, for reasons explained in our editorial).

 

The  pit-bull reviewer

Not unnaturally, the focus of the complaints about editorial procedures, and of attempts at optimizing them, has been on reviewers and editors. But a broader perspective would greatly help what is, after all – or at least should be – the common interest of  reviewers, editors, and the authors themselves. Virginia Walbot, in one of our most popular Comment items (and the origin of the pit bull metaphor), set out guidelines for PIs in training postdocs in fair and judicious refereeing…

 

…but what about the author?

When we first mooted our own policy, Robert Horwitz  remarked that ‘…what is in the paper is fundamentally the responsibility of the authors, not of the reviewers’ – but otherwise, so far as I am aware, the only comment to address the responsibility of the authors is Leslie Vosshall’s in The FASEB Journal last year. Everything she says is eminently intelligent – aim your paper at an appropriate journal, don’t start at the one with the highest impact factor and work down until you exhaust the pool of competent referees (and lose time in the process); and write your paper clearly and succinctly, take care with the graphics, and proofread the whole thing properly before submitting it, so that reviewers and editors don’t have to struggle to extract the salient information.

 

Portability of peer review

On the issue of exhausting (sensu lato) referees, one purely procedural manoeuvre that clearly makes sense is to make referees’ reports from highly selective and/or general journals available to other journals to which rejected authors of ultimately publishable papers might want to submit. BMC Biology has the luxury of an extensive family of subject-specific sister journals with whom referees’ reports can be shared to expedite the progress to publication of those papers that turn out not to meet its criteria. We are also open to refugees bringing referees’ reports from other publishers’ journals – on a formal basis in some cases (PeerJ, And under negotiation with EMBOJ and eLife), or informally from anywhere. In the latter case, of course, we can’t use the same referees to check revisions, but we can often make a decision quickly on the basis of advice from an Editorial Board member.

 

Parting remarks

It is notable that all the publishers recently to offer new strategies of enlightened peer review are open access, a movement that BioMed Central is proud to have pioneered.