What’s new in peer review?

As part of this week’s peer review celebrations, we asked Kathryn Maitland, Editorial Board Member for BMC Medicine, and Buzz Baum, Editorial Board Member for BMC Biology, for their take on peer review innovations and their preferred model of peer review.

In conversations about peer review with our Editorial Board Members this week the feelings of frustration with the process are still all too apparent. Authors are primarily concerned by how long the peer review process will take (especially given the need to keep research going after PhDs and post-docs have left the lab).

Will reviewers suggest opposing revisions (or worse more experiments)? Will the paper be improved by peer review? Will an Editor allow one reviewer to scupper the whole process?

Kathryn Maitland
Kathryn Maitland

These concerns are not new, however it’s encouraging that recent innovations in peer review are beginning to address some of these perennial issues. We are seeing new models of peer review emerge; community initiatives within specific fields (Axios Review and Peerage of Science); individual journal approaches to make the process more efficient and transparent and increasing ways to give recognition for peer review.

Buzz Baum
Buzz Baum

Here we ask Kathryn Maitland, a consultant in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London and Buzz Baum, Professor of Cell Biology Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London for their opinions on the peer review process.

Do you think there have been useful developments in peer review recently?

Kathryn Maitland (KM): That is a big question as there has been many changes over the past few years – largely designed to standardize how results are reported, for example, clinical trials and systematic reviews and transparency of authors conflicts of interest. One of the big changes is the availability of open peer review rather than closed (anonymous) peer review.

Buzz Baum (BB): The pre-print server for biology bioRxiv is a useful development. If widely used we can see whether peer review at each journal makes papers better or worse. We can see how the authorship of a manuscript changes during the review process. It would be a great help if all journals allowed this. Then the community would have less concerns about trying out this parallel way of communicating research prior to peer reviewed publication.

What would you say is the preferred model of peer review in your field and why?

A relatively junior peer reviewer may be slightly daunted by the prospect of openly critically reviewing work of an expert in that field.

Kathryn Maitland

KM: I think it depends where you are in your research career. A relatively junior peer reviewer may be slightly daunted by the prospect of openly critically reviewing work of an expert in that field – especially when this is a very small field.

BB: I think eLIFE has changed the rules by using panels of reviewers who know each other’s identity and where reviewer comments are collated into a consensus of recommendations for the author. This should raise the level of peer review – as long as care is made to ensure that more junior reviewers are not bullied by their more senior colleagues.

Does the particular model of peer review used influence your judgement of the quality of a published research article?

KM: No, but if I were concerned about the quality of the data/conclusions of a paper then I would much prefer that I could access the reviews of the manuscript and how the editorial panel and authors chose to interpret and respond to these. It helps to see the ‘bigger picture’ with multiple reviewers’ opinions

BB: No, however, having followed the work of Pubpeer, I am concerned that checking the veracity of data be an important part of peer review.

Given recent developments in peer review during the last 2 or 3 years, do you think there will an acceptance of alternatives to peer review in your field in the future?

It is fine that people can publish online without peer review and then have post-publication peer review.

Buzz Baum

KM: We need peer review. There are so many papers available each year – to have a process that screens out poor or even fraudulent research is essential. Many clinician or scientists often read no further than the abstract or at worst the media hype!

BB: No, peer review is here to stay. It is one of the main reasons why the public take the findings of science seriously. However, it is clear that there are problems with the process as it is right now. It is painful, takes too long, doesn’t always improve the work, and often seems to hinder rather than help. So, innovation should be encouraged. I think its fine to publish online without peer review and have post-publication peer review. After all, everyone should be able to read a paper and judge for themselves.

It’s clear from the thoughts of Kathryn and Buzz that there are more questions to be asked about the value of peer review and the efficacy of various models.

With this in mind we have recently launched a new journal Research Integrity and Peer Review covering all aspects of peer review, standards of reporting and research and publication ethics. The journal is now open for submissions and considers manuscripts on research and publication ethics, research reporting, and peer review.


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