I freeze in horror. I have just received a decision e-mail about my recent manuscript submission to a well-regarded academic journal. I don’t even want to open it. I close my mailbox and pretend the e-mail is not there. But soon the curiosity takes over and I read ‘… and therefore the data is useless’; ‘… this renders the data measured in the manuscript completely uninterpretable‘; … does not inspire me with confidence that the researchers really know what they are doing‘. Hey, wait a minute… Is an expert in my academic field just trying to tell me with full confidence that I have spent 3 years doing something useless, random, and worthless? Is this a senior, experienced researcher whose professional opinion I should value? Should I pack my bags and quit? Or, perhaps, do I have some enemies? If you ask around, most researchers have gone through this kind of peer review trauma. No wonder that some are getting pretty inventive and opt for a self-peer review.
I value the core idea of a peer review process and I see it as each researcher’s responsibility, but there is something quite wrong with it. I am always looking forward to fellows giving me hints on how to improve my work. But my recent experience with being a reviewer or an author makes me feel pretty confident that there is no other way than the transparent peer review.
I recently reviewed a manuscript for one of Elsevier‘s journals, wrote a report, raised several major points that needed revising, and waited for the authors’ rebuttal. Guess what, I have never seen it and was simply informed that the manuscript had been accepted a few months after. Were my questions answered or ignored? Was my two days-work useful for the authors? Were my suggestions insignificant for the work? Why was I even asked to start a conversation when my opinion did not matter in the later stages of the process? I fully recognize the editor’s superiority in making the final decision, but it still feels unfair. Unfortunately, asking around, I’ve learned that others have a similar experience.
So how does the transparent or open peer review process work? The review reports become publicly available. Also, the reviewing may become no longer single-blinded, with the names of the reviewers not confidential anymore. To me, this sounds like a perfect and effortless solution to do away with most of the rude comments and unfair criticism, and any form of bias towards the authors, especially those at early career stages. In some extreme cases, it may prevent anonymous reviewers from hindering publications on purpose. Who would benefit from it? For sure everyone directly involved, which means all scientists, but also the general public as the transparent peer review can help to track possible scientific misconducts better.
The good news is that a number of academic journals have already started to publish the peer review reports alongside publications. Unfortunately, this is still not an option when submitting to most of the largest academic publishers. The scientific community is also not idle. There are many initiatives, which allow post- or pre-publication community peer-review such as PubPeer, preLights, researchers.one, the Winnower, Self-journal of Science, or preprint servers like bioXriv. Sounds worth giving it a try!