‘Whether jour­nals in a world of pre­prints will con­tinue to carry out pre-pub­li­ca­tion re­view is open to ques­tion’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - SPORT - Jim Wood­gett is di­rec­tor of re­search and a se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor at the Lunen­feldTa­nen­baum Re­search In­sti­tute, Toronto.

As sci­en­tists, many of us have a love/hate re­la­tion­ship with peer re­view. Most of us be­lieve it is nec­es­sary to max­imise the in­tegrity of the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture, yet we chafe when our own manuscripts are crit­i­cised. And we com­plain when re­view­ers take too long to re­view our manuscripts even as we pro­cras­ti­nate about com­plet­ing that re­view re­quest sit­ting in our own in­boxes.

There are good rea­sons to say yes to those re­quests, such as build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion with ed­i­tors of a jour­nal in which you might want to pub­lish and to pre­view cool new science. How­ever, the in­creas­ing vol­ume of manuscripts cou­pled with ever greater pres­sure on sci­en­tists’ time means that it is nec­es­sary to turn most of them down if you want to get any of your own work done. Find­ing the right bal­ance isn’t easy.

For their part, jour­nals con­tinue to strug­gle to se­cure ap­pro­pri­ate re­view­ers (es­pe­cially dur­ing the dreaded sum­mer and hol­i­day pe­ri­ods of high sub­mis­sion and low avail­abil­ity) even as ini­tia­tives such as Publons have been es­tab­lished in the hope of giv­ing more recog­ni­tion for a task that is usu­ally per­formed anony­mously.

Fur­ther chal­lenges to peer re­view are pre­sented by the ac­cel­er­at­ing use of pre­print servers in bio­med­i­cal sciences, repli­cat­ing the well-es­tab­lished prac­tice in physics. Pre­prints are posted on bioRxiv after min­i­mal over­sight by “af­fil­i­ates” (of which I’m one of many), who check only that they are sci­en­tific.

Jour­nals’ lu­cra­tive ex­ist­ing role as science’s mid­dle­men will not be read­ily sur­ren­dered, and it is plau­si­ble that the top jour­nals at least will be able to con­tinue lever­ag­ing their brands to select and cu­rate the best pre­prints, con­fer­ring on them a badge of qual­ity that, not­with­stand­ing pres­sure to stop judg­ing sci­en­tists on the ba­sis of where they have pub­lished, is likely to re­main of im­por­tance to re­cruit­ment and pro­mo­tion com­mit­tees for years to come.

But whether jour­nals in such a world will con­tinue to carry out pre-pub­li­ca­tion peer re­view is open to ques­tion, not least be­cause while fewer jour­nals would mean less de­mand for re­view­ers, there will be less in­cen­tive for re­view­ers to take part. After all, if a man­u­script can be ac­cessed on­line im­me­di­ately after sub­mis­sion, re­view­ers will no longer en­joy the op­por­tu­nity to get a sneak pre­view of the lat­est re­search. Pay­ment of re­view­ers could com­pen­sate but it would bring with it other is­sues, such as con­flicts of in­ter­est.

Jour­nals may de­cide, in­stead, to rely on post-pub­li­ca­tion peer re­view by archive users. Most pre­print servers al­low for com­ments (and sub­se­quent cor­rec­tions of the pre­print) to be added. There may well be fur­ther de­vel­op­ments in this re­gard, in­clud­ing in­clu­sion of new data in a re­view as a means to ex­tend, clar­ify or re­but find­ings, and it is pos­si­ble to imag­ine a jour­nal ap­proach­ing an au­thor of a pre­print to of­fer to pub­lish it con­di­tional on such points be­ing ad­dressed.

One is­sue would be re­viewer iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The fact that post-pub­li­ca­tion re­view­ers are typ­i­cally iden­ti­fied may at­tract some re­view­ers in search of greater ex­po­sure. But it prob­a­bly puts off far more. Given the op­tion, most re­view­ers choose not to make their iden­tity known for sev­eral rea­sons, in­clud­ing po­ten­tial back­lash from dis­grun­tled au­thors and fel­low re­view­ers – even though most recog­nise that science would ben­e­fit if this largely hid­den but sub­stan­tive and valu­able lit­er­a­ture were ex­posed to day­light. Early ca­reer aca­demics in par­tic­u­lar are prob­a­bly wise to be wary in this re­gard.

This prob­lem could be solved by pro­vid­ing anonymity to on­line re­views. How­ever, it is un­clear how much time busy sci­en­tists would be pre­pared to put into post-pub­li­ca­tion re­view when the ben­e­fits of pre­view­ing or build­ing a re­la­tion­ship with a par­tic­u­lar jour­nal are no longer in place. While it seems un­likely that many peo­ple would be mo­ti­vated to sub­mit the kind of com­pre­hen­sive re­view typ­i­cally sub­mit­ted dur­ing to­day’s pre-pub­li­ca­tion process, the hope might per­haps be that enough peo­ple would be will­ing to com­ment briefly, on aspects of the pa­per that par­tic­u­larly strike them – so that the whole ap­prox­i­mates to some­thing sub­stan­tive. Pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ments with post-pub­li­ca­tion peer re­view are not en­cour­ag­ing, but were com­pet­ing with es­tab­lished pre-pub­li­ca­tion re­view.

While the demise of ex­pert pre-pub­li­ca­tion re­view by peers might be greatly lamented by the dreaded re­viewer #3, the dam­age it would in­flict on true sci­en­tific progress is open to ques­tion.

In­deed, per­haps it is time to ask whether peer re­view it­self war­rants re­viewer #3’s unique brand of at­ten­tion.

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