Can open peer review work? Biology Direct suggests it can…


Peer review is a process integral to the scientific research cycle, and, for the majority of biology journals, one that takes place behind closed doors. In conventional blind peer review, reviewers remain anonymous to the authors, and their comments are not made available once a paper is published.

The closed nature of this review can have its problems: high-profile commentaries on lengthy, iterative review calling for an end to ‘the tyranny of reviewer experiments’ and ‘painful publishing’ have generated much discussion on the issue in recent years.

But can one of the touted solutions to the problem, namely opening up the peer review process for all to see, work in practice?

Biology Direct launched 7 years ago as a community experiment in open peer review, whereby both the names of the reviewers, and their comments, are included in the final publication. As Editors-in-Chief Eugene Koonin, Laura Landweber and David Lipman put it in their launch Editorial, their aims were ‘unapologetically ambitious’:

“to establish a new, perhaps, better system of peer review and, in the process, bolster productive scientific debate, and provide scientists with useful guides to the literature”

Their logic was as follows – scientific debate at conferences is priceless in providing fresh perspectives and directions, and while discussion can be heated, academics are required to stand by the comments they make. Without the veil of anonymity, responsibility is increased – why not apply the same rubric to the peer-review process?

Other progressive policies of the journal include inviting the authors to select reviewers from the Editorial board, and allowing the author, rather than an Editor, to decide whether to publish a paper in light of the reviewer comments.

Now in its 8th year, the journal is reorganising and expanding its scope, and in an Editorial to announce the changes, the Editors-in-Chief take a look a back at the successes, and challenges, that this open peer-review scheme has met with.

Anecdotally, their discussions with scientists support the impression that Biology Direct has become a well-known forum for constructive, open discussion of new results and ideas, with readers often turning first to the exchange between authors and reviewers.

The quality of research published in the journal is also clear, Biology Direct has been recognized twice in the BioMed Central Annual Research Awards, most recently for Geoffrey Diemer and Kenneth Stedman’s discovery of a novel virus genome from an extreme environment which received the overall award. The journal is also well accessed and cited – suggesting that concerns that this model would compromise the quality of research published are not substantiated.

The successes have led to the expansion and reorganisation of the journal into the following sections:

–          Bioinformatics
–          Evolutionary Biology
–          Genomics
–          Mathematical Biology
–          Non-coding DNA and RNA
–          Structural and Molecular Biology
–          Systems Biology



Full details of the newly appointed Section Editors, and Editorial Board members are available here.

While the journal is expanding at this point an air of pragmatism remains – one particularly interesting insight from the Editors is that the journal has been more successful in generating discussion in some areas of the scope than others (namely evolutionary genomics, systems biology and bioinformatics).

Perhaps this suggests that currently open review is more attractive to authors of non-experimental research, and it will be interesting to see if this is reflected in the proliferation of journals with similar open review policies, such as F1000 Research.

What is clear is that the scientific community acknowledges the need for alternative approaches which attempt to address perceived inefficiencies with the traditional system, (the subject of a recent panel discussion organised by BioMed Central) and whilst a  ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach may not be the solution, Biology Direct has forged a unique niche for open peer review and scientific debate.

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Lee Turnpenny

From that linked Editorial: ‘… we expected that [it] would generate productive scientific debate that would substantially add to the content of an article, in particular by alerting readers to potential problems with the reviewed work as well as additional relevant data and ideas.’

This ethos presumably applies to BMC Central‘s full stable of journals? And also extends to reader’s comments on papers published? So why is it so damned difficult to get comments posted on papers at BMC Cancer?


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