Leading Biomedical Funders Call For Open Peer Review Of Academic Research
from the nothing-to-hide dept
Techdirt has written many posts about open access — the movement to make digital versions of academic research freely available to everyone. Open access is about how research is disseminated once it has been selected for publication. So far, there has been less emphasis on changing how academic work is selected in the first place, which is based on the time-honored approach of peer review. That is, papers submitted to journals are sent out to experts in the same or similar field, who are invited to comment on ways of improving the work, and on whether the research should be published. Traditionally, the process is shrouded in secrecy. The reviewers are generally anonymous, and the reports they make on the submissions are not made public. Now, however, the idea of making peer review more transparent as part of the general process of becoming more open is gaining increasing impetus.
A couple of weeks ago, representatives of two leading biomedical funders — the UK Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — together with ASAPbio, a non-profit organization that encourages innovation in life-sciences publishing, wrote a commentary in Nature. In it, they called for “open review”, which, they point out, encompasses two distinct forms of transparency:
‘Open identities’ means disclosing reviewers’ names; ‘open reports’ (also called transparent reviews or published peer review) means publishing the content of reviews. Journals might offer one or the other, neither or both.
In a 2016 survey, 59% of 3,062 respondents were in favour of open reports. Only 31% favoured open identities, which they feared could cause reviewers to weaken their criticisms or could lead to retaliation from authors. Here, we advocate for open reports as the default and for open identities to be optional, not mandatory.
The authors of the commentary believe that there are a number of advantages to open reports:
The scientific community would learn from reviewers’ and editors’ insights. Social scientists could collect data (for example, on biases among reviewers or the efficiency of error identification by reviewers) that might improve the process. Early-career researchers could learn by example. And the public would not be asked to place its faith in hidden assessments.
There are, of course risks. One concern mentioned is that published reviews might be used unfairly in subsequent evaluation of the authors for grants, jobs, awards or promotions. Another possibility is the ‘weaponization’ of reviewer reports:
Opponents of certain types of research (for example, on genetically modified organisms, climate change and vaccines) could take critical remarks in peer reviews out of context or mischaracterize disagreements to undermine public trust in the paper, the field or science as a whole.
Despite these and other concerns mentioned in the Nature commentary, an open letter published on the ASAPbio site lists dozens of major titles that have already instituted open reports, or promise to do so next year. As well as that indication that open reports are passing from concept to reality, it’s worth bearing in mind that the UK Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are major funders of biomedical research. It would be a relatively straightforward step for them to make the adoption of open reports a condition of receiving their grants — something that would doubtless encourage uptake of the idea.