A worthy approach to peer review?

BioMed Central announces a new partnership with Axios Review, an external peer review service that aims to improve the efficiency of the peer review system.

Peer review is one of the bedrocks of the scientific process. It’s also one of its most criticised aspects. Of the many criticisms, one of the clearest is its wastefulness.

Scientists will, quite naturally, submit their work to the journal in which they think it will have highest impact. Equally naturally, these highly selective journals will reject a high proportion of manuscripts either before or after peer review.

Authors then begin the process of submission to their alternative choice of journal until their work is eventually accepted and published. Each journal asks for a fresh set of referees to assess the manuscript, providing the authors with another set of revisions to make.

Most researchers will go through this process at some point and yet it is one which can waste both their time and those of referees too.


Making peer review portable

800px-ScientificReviewSince BioMed Central launched in 2000, we’ve been attempting to alleviate inefficiencies in the peer review process. For over a decade, we’ve supported manuscript transfers between journals so that manuscripts rejected for reasons of scope or interest can be transferred to another journal (along with reviewer comments) which has a more relevant scope or a more inclusive publication policy.

The BMC series of journals for example, have an inclusive ethos and will consider any research deemed a sound and useful addition to the literature by their peers. A final decision can frequently be made on transferred manuscripts without needing to seek a new set of reviews. And of course transfers can still work in the other direction too, if the findings are interesting enough to meet the requirements of broad interest journals.

More recently, this transfer process has been expanded to include cross-publisher initiatives involving eLife, BioMed Central, the Public Library of Science (PLoS), and the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO). Authors who are not accepted by their first choice journal can, if they wish, submit to another journal at a different publisher together with the referee reports.

A transferred manuscript can be accepted by a BMC-series journal in a matter of days; quite different from the usual system of starting the review process all over again at a new journal. See here for more on these initiatives.


A new way of doing the old things

While a number of consortiums facilitate portable peer review (e.g. the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium) there will still be many instances where authors find that reviews cannot be transferred between different publishers who have not forged links.

This has led to the more recent development of centralised peer review services, such as Peerage of Science and Rubriq. Authors submit their paper directly to these services for peer review. These reviews can then be included in submissions to any journal of the author’s choosing (although it is of course up to the individual journals whether they wish to make use of these reviews). In theory, a manuscript submitted to these services need only be reviewed once, no matter how many journals it is submitted to before being accepted for publication.

BioMed Central is happy to support initiatives to improve the peer review process. Several of our journals are Peerage of Science members and have published research based on reviews they have provided. Note that Peerage of Science cover their costs by charging the publisher a fee if an author takes up a journals offer to publish.

This week we’ve also started a six month trial partnership with another of these innovative companies, Axios Review. As with similar initiatives, Axios (Greek for “judged worthy”) obtains reviews on submitted manuscripts and makes referrals to potential target journals on the authors’ behalf. Referees and handling editors are also asked to comment on the suitability of the manuscript for these target journals. So at the end of the review process the authors should have a firm offer from an appropriate journal and have eliminated the vicious cycle of repeated rejection and resubmission.

Only if the manuscript is eventually published at a target journal will Axios charge authors a fee of $250. However, BioMed Central is willing to discount the Axios fee from the article processing charge for manuscripts that we publish via Axios during the six month trial period.


The future of peer review?

The first fruits of this new partnership are already visible. BMC Evolutionary Biology this month published an article by Björn Stelbrink and colleagues on the adaptive radiation of sailfin silverside fish in Indonesia. The article was reviewed via Axios, who then contacted the editors of BMC Evolutionary Biology with details of the reviews they had obtained (including the referees’ identities). In the light of positive reports, we were happy to encourage the authors to submit to the journal. Based on the authors’ response to the Axios reviews, the manuscript was accepted for publication just one day after submission.

Sailfin silversides, the subject of the first Axios reviewed research to be published in a BMC journal.This is a pelagic “roundfin” species of the Lake Matano Telmatherina radiation. Like in other sailfin silversides, there are two distinct male colour morphs, being either yellow (this picture), or blue.
Sailfin silversides, the subject of the first Axios reviewed research to be published in a BMC journal.
This is a pelagic “roundfin” species of the Lake Matano Telmatherina radiation. Like in other sailfin silversides, there are two distinct male colour morphs, being either yellow (this picture), or blue.

Björn Stelbrink commented to us that he and his co-authors “tried Axios Review for receiving not only helpful reviews, but also for getting independent advice for the most suited target journal. Both worked very well –three referees helped with valuable comments improving the manuscript, and the BMC editors accepted our work after only a few days.”

Currently Axios, like Peerage of Science, only considers research in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology. Whether these services will continue to expand into other scientific fields remains to be seen. However, BioMed Central is willing to support new initiatives that improve the peer review process for authors and referees alike.

by Chris Foote, Simon Harold and Elizabeth Moylan, BMC editors


A full list of the BMC journals taking part in this initiative and encouraging submissions via Axios:

Axios logo

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