Review Is the Key to Open Access

By Andrew Preston, co-founder of Publons

A favourite ploy among unsolicited email advertising, that bane of the connected world, is the offer of instant degrees conferred by bogus institutions. Easy to get, sure, but unlikely to get you far in a competitive job market. In short, where you got your degree matters. Reputation is everything.

It’s the same in the world of academic publishing. Peer-review serves an essential role as the gatekeeper to research. Scientists evaluate the work of their peers to make sure the work is sound. Where you get your paper published matters too. This second layer of evaluation – and reputation – is added by the exclusivity (and impact factor) of the publication itself. The system is designed to give academics greater confidence in the published literature they choose to read.

The traditional approach serves to limit discussion and debate

It’s a system that has continued more or less unchanged and unchallenged for centuries. While, in the last few years, the internet has transformed virtually every publishing industry, there has been little experiment or innovation in the way academic research is communicated and evaluated.

The open access movement has challenged the traditional academic journal model on a single front: publication. While open access has made it easier for people to access a wider range of material, the issue of evaluation remains. In this critical area, traditional journals still hold all the cards.

This issue was highlighted by John Bohannon’s recent open access journal sting. Bohannon submitted versions of a fake paper to 304 open access journals. This paper was so flawed that no journal should have accepted it, and yet more than half did!

It’s tempting to blame the open access model for this, but that’s not the problem. We need to focus on the evaluation process — the peer-review. Reviewing is a necessary but thankless task. Reviewers get no credit for their time and effort. Journals struggle to find qualified reviewers who don’t have conflicts of interest. As a result, the review process can take months, slowing down the dissemination of research it is designed to facilitate. And, as Bohannon showed, that’s only if it’s done well.

The traditional approach serves to limit discussion and debate. There is no inherent reason that only one or two experts in a field should determine the validity of a paper, nor that their evaluations be kept secret. There is plenty of valuable knowledge out there in the heads of experts. We just need to figure out how to get it on the web, because if we succeed at that we strengthen the case for open access.

This starts with giving reviewers credit for their work. There are many ways to do this. One approach is to turn review into a publication itself. We’ve recently begun allocating Digital Object Identifiers (DOI) to reviews performed on Publons.com, making them citable contributions to the scientific literature. While DOIs are standard for published articles and datasets, the application of DOIs to peer review is a world first. Effectively, this puts reviews on the same footing as publications. For academics, it means they can augment their publication record with a portfolio of reviews. This record can be used to strengthen applications for funding and jobs, and to collaborate in the academic community on a deeper level.

We’re not the only ones working to open up peer review. A number of interesting startups have begun to work in this space. PeerJ, PubPeer, Libre, F1000, Axios Review, PeerEvaluation, Rubriq, The Winnower, and Peerage of Science have all announced initiatives focused on improving review. These range from new publishing models, to post-publication review platforms, to peer-review as a service.

For an open access world to succeed we need our gatekeepers. We need to make sure they get ‘paid’. Giving peer reviewers recognition and credit for their indispensable contributions to science provides a greater incentive for them to contribute high-quality, timely reviews. The payoff for everyone is better debate, greater transparency and the enhanced reputation of open access material, leading ultimately to faster and better communication of science.

[Andrew received his PhD in condensed matter physics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2010, and then did a postdoc focused on x-ray spectroscopy at Boston University. His firsthand experiences writing and reviewing papers led him to found Publons. This piece is made available under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 New Zealand licence.]

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