28 Jun 2007

Open peer review & community peer review

There has been a lot of discussion about 'open peer review' lately - this letter to Nature is just the latest example. With all these opinions and hypotheses about peer review flying around, I think that it is useful to make some distinctions between the different types of 'open' review, so here goes.

Traditional peer review. Anonymous reports received pre-publication. Letters to the editor are considered by many journals, but especially in paper journals relatively few are published. All the BioMed Central journals accept signed comments from readers.

Open peer review. Named, pre-publication review, which is how the BMC-series medical journals work, and the BMJ too. The difference lies in that the reviews are available for readers to see in the BMC-series medical journals, but the BMJ never made this move. Comments can also be posted by readers: the BMJ's Rapid Responses should be envied by any journal. It is controversial as some reviewers don't wish to be named, and it can make finding peer reviewers harder, but to anyone who doubts the open peer review works I can point out that the BMJ has published hundreds of peer reviewed articles since it introduced open peer review, and the medical journals in the BMC series have published thousands of peer reviewed articles since they launched in 2000. Open peer review can work.

Open and permissive peer review. This is Biology Direct's approach. Articles are published if they receive reviews solicited by the author from at least 3 members of the reviewing board (aside from pseudoscience, which the editors will veto), with the comments included at the end of the article, unless the author withdraw the manuscript. More here, and I discussed their approach in a previous post. Comments can be posted by readers, as with the other BioMed Central journals.

Community peer review. The idea of community peer review is to avoid peer review being the domain of a biased subset of the scientific community, and it has a powerful philosophy that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". It can be either anonymous or named, and still happens before formal publication, but the difference is that reviewers volunteer rather than being selected by the editors. The manuscript is public while under review, but explicitly is not 'published' at that point. This was how Nature's experiment worked (or didn't work), but it was alongside the usual anonymous editorially selected reviews, and the comments don't seem to have been treated as 'proper' reviews by the editors.

Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics uses a similar approach, apparently with much more success than Nature. The editors refuse articles that don't meet minimal scientific standards, then post the remaining articles for 8 weeks of Interactive Public Discussion (named or anonymous), then publish the final version. There doesn't appear to be any mention of rejecting articles after the initial public posting, so this permissive peer review resembles a community version of Biology Direct.

The Journal of Interactive Media in Education uses named reports, and invites review from the community. The two-step process involves private, named review by invited reviewers, followed by publication of a preliminary version that is reviewed further by the community before final, formal publication.

Permissive peer review, post-publication commentary.
This is PLoS ONE's approach. They have minimal peer review, with the expectation that the scientific community will then comment on and annotate the articles. I was already a bit skeptical of the merits of minimal peer review, as are others, and now a Nature news story, among others, has attacked the publication of a study on HIV and circumcision in PLoS ONE, arguing that peer review failed in this case. Sending out an unbalanced press release written by the author seems to have compounded the problem, and wasn't very responsible. A lengthy response has been posted to the article, showing that post-publication review can work, but plenty of journals have the option to post comments, and the horse has already bolted.

No peer review, post-publication commentary.
This is how Philica works, and now Nature Preceedings, part pre-print, part repository for preliminary work. I don't think that Philica is working; Nature Preceedings will probably fare better. An essential difference is that while Philica is clogged with pseudoscience, Nature Preceedings explictly won't post pseudoscience, and it has the Nature brand name to help it gather interest and comments. I found an optimistically titled Web 2.0 Peer Reviewed Science Journal, which has a website but no articles. "This page that you are reading now is a review site, and I (Philip Dorrell) am the intended reviewer. If you, as an author of a scientific paper, are interested in having me review your paper, all you have to do is publish your paper as a web page, and then send an email". Hmm... sorry Philip, but peer review involves more than just your opinion on articles. Web 2.0 requires users and content.

BioMed Central is open access, PLoS is open access, the BMJ is open access, Nature Preceedings is open access, and they are all experimenting with peer review. Matthew Falagas has commented in Open Medicine (the open access journal that arose out of the editorial dispute at the CMAJ), after spotting this pattern of a link between experimenting with peer review and open access. I think it is worth stating that despite this trend, open access and open peer review don't necessarily go together. The biology journals in the BMC-series still have anonymous review, as do the PLoS journals. The problem of access to an article is at a tangent to the problem of reviewing it - but, of course, community peer review can't work if not enough people have access to the article.

I think that if there is doubt in the integrity of peer review (and there is more and more doubt), this increases the imperative for exposing pre-publication review processes. Journals can't just be paternalistic or secretive about peer review, and readers shouldn't take it on trust that an article labelled as 'peer reviewed' has been rigorously critiqued by experts in the field. PLoS ONE is encouraging its reviewers to make their reviews public on the published article, which is a great step. Requiring reviewers to opt-out would be even stronger, but PLoS Medicine recently backed away from this policy.

If journals really want community peer review to work, we cannot just sit back and wait for comments to come in. Pre-publication peer review takes a massive effort on the part of editors to find qualified reviewers, and the chances of enough qualified reviewers stumbling across an article and feeling obliged to leave comments to make post-publication review viable and vibrant are low. Ways to solicit comments are essential, using email alerts for example. In a definite step in the right direction, PLoS ONE is organising virtual 'journal clubs'. Remember that anyone who has had a face-to-face journal club at their institute about a BioMed Central article, or a BMJ article, or a PLoS article, can and should post the results of the discussion as a comment on the article.

I think that open peer review and community peer review are the future of assessing scientific articles. It doesn't stop there - I've not even mentioned wikis!


Bill Hooker said...

Peer review of this review of peer review: excellent. :-)

sklee said...

This is an excellent spontaneous review article, to be found nowhere in peer-reviews journals or news. If Wiki's didn't succeed, I would be more skeptical of community review, but I am more and more a fan of the idea that with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow.

Matt Hodgkinson said...

This post is cited in Margaret Driscoll. Opening Eyes: How Open Access Changed Scholarly Publishing. The Educational Collaborative, 2001. 1 and Gewissensbisse:
Ethische Probleme der Informatik. Biometrie- Datenschutz- geistiges Eigentum
, p. 83 by Debora Weber-Wulff, Christina Class, Wolfgang Coy, Constanze Kurz, David Zellhöfer 2009, transcript.

jpoihjhjkhjh said...

We are starting a not-for-profit project to promote a kind of open peer review. We believe that by developing advanced tools to interact with the document, the readers will be interested in reviewing. One of the features we are developing is inline PDF comments for community review. You can track our progress at not-for-profit submitio.org.

Matt Hodgkinson said...

Good luck with Submitio, Justo. However I suspect it will sadly be one of many unused post-publication peer review sites - nobody seems to have cracked making it work yet.