Q&A: The re-review opt-out experiment in Journal of Biology

Miranda Robertson 

What is the re-review opt-out experiment?
Read the editorial in Journal of Biology, I’m not repeating myself. (But briefly, where authors have revised their paper in response to referees they will be asked to choose whether referees see it again.)

Why should referees bother to review papers if they know their criticisms can be ignored?
Most of the Editorial Board members we canvassed about this experiment said it wouldn’t deter them from refereeing papers, and anyway the authors will be asked to respond to the criticisms and their responses will be scrutinized by the editors, so they won’t exactly be ignored.

So it will be the editors who will judge whether the criticisms have been met?
In some cases the editors should be competent to make that judgement, yes. (Quite a few Editorial Board members took the view that this is the proper responsibility of editors and most of them aren’t doing it.) If it seems clear to the editors that authors have elected not to meet a serious criticism, the paper may be rejected. In any case, Journal of Biology always commissions a commentary on any paper published: for the duration of the experiment, in those cases where authors have opted out of re-review, the author of the commentary will have access to the referees’ reports and the authors’ responses.

What if the commentary author writes a damning critique because the referees’ objections haven’t been met?
In those circumstances we may offer the authors the opportunity to withdraw the paper.

But what if the authors refuse and insist that the commentary author is wrong? Why not offer to publish the authors’ rebuttal along with the commentary?
Journal of Biology is aimed at informing a broad readership about important developments in many fields. For that reason it has a responsibility to try and ensure that what it publishes presents a valid picture of the field at the time of publication. It is not clear that nonspecialist readers’ interests are best served by being presented with two sides of a picture and having to judge for themselves. The authors will have had the option of answering the referees’ criticisms directly in the traditional way, and the possibility of a critical commentary if they opt out of re-review will have been made clear to them at the time that they opted out. We will not offer them the opportunity to rebut the commentary.

What if you can’t find anyone to write an appropriately critical commentary?

We may have to write it ourselves. With advice, of course.

Some authors find re-review very helpful and wouldn’t want to be deprived of it – What about them?
They can opt to have their papers re-reviewed: it will be the authors’ choice –  As we have already said. You haven’t been concentrating.

What about the reviewers? If some Editorial Board members have said they would be reluctant to referee if authors were allowed to opt out of re-review, might not some reviewers want to opt out of refereeing papers you send them?
Yes. The system will be explained to referees when we invite them to review papers and they may then refuse if they don’t like it.

Isn’t this just a rather half-hearted version of other existing schemes for avoiding the frustrations of the reviewing process?
Of course there are other schemes that go further, yes  – The BioMed Central journal Biology Direct for example allows authors to choose their own referees from a panel, and publishes the referees’ comments alongside the paper. Several BMC medical journals have open peer review in which again the referees’ comments appear with the paper on publication.
Half-hearted, no. Our experiment is very specifically addressed to the major target of adverse comment by researchers we have spoken to – That is, re-review (see Box 1 in the editorial in Journal of Biology). We do not, sadly, think open review is likely always to be consistent with candour. But we do think that a system in which authors have the option of deciding against re-review may encourage everyone to take their responsibilities more seriously. Referees may need to be clearer about which of their criticisms are critical to the validity of the paper; authors may need to ask themselves harder questions than whether they can talk referees/editors into accepting their papers; and editors may need to take more responsibility themselves for what they publish, and not leave all the thinking to hard-pressed referees.

If this is an experiment, how long will it run?
Until it becomes clear that it is unworkable – for example, if it is too difficult to find adequate referees willing to look at papers under the scheme; or if we are publishing a significant number of papers that are savaged in the accompanying commentary; or other insuperable problems arise that we haven’t thought of.

Will you be publishing the results?
Yes, unrefereed.

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