Righting peer review: Are trust and incentives the key?

What can we do to increase trust in peer review? How can we encourage more researchers to take part in peer review? These were just some of the issues considered in a panel discussion on 'Righting Peer Review' at the ARCS conference earlier this week.

“Trust and incentives are the two biggest issues facing peer review” according to Laurel Haak, Executive Director of ORCID. She was speaking during this weeks’ Righting Peer Review panel discussion at the Advancing Research Communication & Scholarship (ARCS) conference in Philadelphia, which I attended.

On a panel chaired by Jigisha Patel, BioMed Central’s Associate Editorial Director for Research Integrity, Laurel was joined by Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch and Adam Etkin, Managing Director/Founder of PRE (Peer Review Evaluation).

A diverse audience including researchers, librarians, editors, and publishers, ensured a lively discussion about current issues relating to peer review and ways in which we, together, could address them. Building trust emerged as a fundamental part of this.

Trust is vital to the peer review process.

Trust is vital to the peer review process. As a member of BioMed Central’s Research Integrity Group, and having been involved in our recent investigation into peer review manipulation, I can appreciate how easily trust in the peer review process can be undermined.

Ivan Oransky highlighted recent cases of peer reviewer fraud covered by Retraction Watch (using this illustrative case), which resulted in retractions across many fields, journals and publishers. Adam Etkin spoke about the need for validation in peer review, and that there is unlikely to be one single ‘fix’; we will increasingly need a number of approaches and to work collaboratively to achieve our goals.

How could peer review be different?

Ivan spoke about the role of double blind peer review, as well as the contribution of post-publication peer review. Double blind peer review may be one way to address bias and was the model favored by researchers when surveyed. It’s currently undergoing a pilot by Nature.

Ivan explained that post-publication peer review, on the other hand, should play an important role in the ongoing process of science. He stressed the importance of continuing to question research even after publication. These ‘many eyeballs’ on published work may be one of several reasons accounting for an increase in retractions in recent years (though not the only reason – fraud is on the increase).

Opening up the peer review process is another solution to increasing trust in peer review. Open peer review, a model where authors and readers know the identity of peer reviewers, is one way to achieve transparency in the process, as I spoke about in an earlier session at ARCS.

Regardless of the peer review model(s) we choose to use, Adam Etkin stressed that there is an important need for validation of the peer review process. Validating that peer review took place, and what that peer review process involved, could play a role in increasing readers’ trust in the published articles they read.

Furthering the theme of trust, Laurel Haak spoke of the need for trust in all parties involved in the peer review process. Readers must be able to have trust in editors, authors and peer reviewers. She spoke about ORCID as one tool to build trust by providing researchers with persistent, individual digital identifiers. Laurel’s slides can be found here.

Incentivizing peer review

By giving researchers proper incentives, we can expand this pool of peer reviewers and in turn reduce the burden on everyone.

Complementing the need for greater trust in peer review, Laurel Haak highlighted the additional need for better incentives for researchers to engage in peer review.

Peer review is altruistic and often without reward. Laurel spoke of a growing number of articles coinciding with a decreasing number of researchers with incentives to review them. This leads to a small pool of peer reviewers and fuels problems with peer review, creating incentives for misbehavior.

By giving researchers proper incentives, we can expand this pool of peer reviewers and in turn reduce the burden on everyone – at least “this is the dream” according to Laurel.

Adding to this discussion, various audience members brought up the topic of ensuring we incentivize quality peer review, rather than creating yet another ‘numbers game’ on which researchers are judged.

Where do we go from here?

As highlighted by Adam Etkin, righting peer review will not take place overnight. We are living in exciting times of peer review innovation. We need to work together to increase trust in the peer review process, and to create a system which provides proper credit for peer reviewers for the valuable, vital work they contribute to science.

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