Obstetrics and review merits

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The new Review Commons initiative from EMBO Press and ASAPbio is another significant development for the progressive movement in scientific publishing.

We tend to see reviewers as judges or sometimes even executioners, but their role really is more like midwives. Their function is not actually to pass sentence from on high, or exact bloody retribution, but to assist delivery. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s tricky. Sometimes…it’s gory (and the young ones in particular tend to be a bit too eager with the scalpels). 

It’s important to remember that reviewers are not actually there to make a decision about the manuscript – that’s the editor’s job. They are there to provide the editor with the best possible information and context to make that decision, and communicate that expert opinion not just to the editor but the authors too. 

It’s also not for either the reviewers or the editors to tell the authors that the story is not ready. It’s the authors’ story. If they’re ready to publish it, they’re ready. It’s ready to come out, and maybe it’ll be beautiful and maybe it’ll be handicapped, but it’s ready. Most likely, it’ll look like a potato. The authors will coo over it and everyone else will politely agree but not quite see what the fuss is about.

To explore the birth analogy further, what if referees were introduced to authors before they submit their reports? A bit like saying “This is Dr. X and Dr. Y, and they’re going to be delivering your paper. You’re in very good hands, and they’re going to give it a thorough check before it comes out.” (You can keep it literally as Dr. X and Dr. Y if you’re a fan of anonymity)

It’s a similar impulse that lies behind Review Commons, which will launch in December 2019 courtesy of EMBO Press and ASAPbio. In essence, it provides a means of outsourcing peer review, and introduces a new bridge between preprints and journals. Reviews from the platform can be posted to bioRxiv to accompany a manuscript. It will enable authors to take their preprints, go through peer review, and then present both the manuscript and the expert assessment to their journal of choice. Now you can have your baby in a private suite and then drop it off at the creche, instead of banging on the creche door while you’re in the middle of labour and asking to be let in.

EMBO Press and ASAPbio rightly note that this likely cut down on the exhausting and undeniably wasteful process of separate and repeated reviews for a single paper as it travels from one destination to the next, a format that means reviewers may well end up being asked to review the same paper multiple times for different journals. That already makes Review Commons better than the current status quo, which is a bit like having to stick the baby back inside the womb and to go elsewhere for a second delivery.

There’s incentive in it too. It’s notable that for all its laudable Open Science aims and Open Access credentials, the main reason preprints have belatedly caught on in the biological sciences is as a means of establishing priority. This again is a manifestation of the fact that when the authors think a story is ready for the wider world it generally is, and the final published peer-reviewed form is unlikely to differ significantly. By posting a preprint, it lets them announce the conclusion of that piece of work independently of the process of formal peer review (which primarily is quality control). It’s a bit like the fact that the best argument in favour of Bio eggs instead of battery farm ones is that – setting all the relevant and important arguments about animal welfare to one side – they actually taste better.

Review Commons now takes that same logic one step further. If preprints establish priority but manuscripts can still be trapped in a wasteful cycle of reviews at different journals (where, let’s face it, the reviewers’ reports may not be unbiased), journal-independent assessment is a means of providing critical evaluation and a further seal of approval. Importantly, it also operates independently of journal choice, which will let stories be assessed on their individual merits as pieces of research without the conflicting factor of the perceived status of a particular journal.

It’s good for students too. Another positive for preprints is that they allow students to show the completion of a story without necessarily having it published (important for PhD thesis defences). The risk though is that preprints might become a kind of pet cemetery, with enthusiasm for subsequent publication waning once the preprint is uploaded and the story is then neglected until it quietly dies. Having outsourced peer review allows another layer of professional validation to be added to young scientists’ CVs irrespective of their mentor’s decisions about final journal homes.

This is of course just the latest in a series of recent attempts to empower authors and improve the process of scientific publishing, not all of which have succeeded. The journal mSphere pioneered its mSphere direct platform in 2017, which let authors select their own reviewers. That trial ended earlier this year when it became apparent that author-driven peer review too often compromised the rigour of the process. Review Commons, by acting as a third party, should avoid this. 

Also of note is that Review Commons is not being initiated by just one journal. It’s supported from on high by a veritable who’s-who at the vanguard of the progressive movement in science publishing: MBoC, EMBO J, EMBO Reports, eLife, JCB, JCS, LSA, PLoS Bio, PLoS Pathogens, Development, PLoS ONE, and more.

What remains to be seen is to what extent this does cut down on review cycles. The on-board journals have promised minimal additional expert input, but we will need to see how this works out in practice. The whole outsourced review concept is also heavily trading on the fact that most published articles strongly resemble their progenitor preprints, but what about those that need more substantial changes? If Review Commons reviewers request changes authors that are unwilling to make, then does that handicap a story?

Regardless, Review Commons marks the latest step in a continuing and laudable trend in science publishing to provide more empowerment of authors, is compatible with the aims of both the Open Science and Open Access movements, and indeed of the larger progressive movement in general. It deserves our support, and endorsement.

5 thoughts on “Obstetrics and review merits

  1. “Also of note is that Review Commons is not being initiated by just one journal. It’s supported from on high by a veritable who’s-who at the vanguard of the progressive movement in science publishing: MBoC, EMBO J, EMBO Reports, eLife, JCB, JCS, LSA, PLoS Bio, PLoS Pathogens, Development, PLoS ONE, and more.”

    Yes, and it’s notable which journals are not part of the progression. It’s clear – to me at least – that there are goodies and baddies in scientific publishing. Initiatives like this highlight which journals and publishers we should support (and probably which ones we shouldn’t).

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    1. Agree 100%. No need to even name names as the absentees (in terms of journal names and publishing houses) are so obvious. If you needed to define who’s in the progressive camp at the moment, you basically just have to look at the list of signatories to this initiative.

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  2. Communication is working pretty well for Review Commons. That’s cool because it is important to talk about open science, open peer review, and ways to improve the current publication system. I would just like to add two comments here.

    1/ As mentioned this is not the first time someone tries to decouple peer review from publishing. Unfortunately, several have tried and failed there. But I think it is important to mention that there is a community-lead (meaning led by scientists themselves, not publishing companies), totally free (nobody says whether Review Commons will be free or not) initiative called Peer Community In which aims to establish communities of researchers in many discipline to organise the peer review of articles deposited in open online archives (so-called preprint servers). Communities are already active in several disciplines, such as Evolutionary Biology, Ecology, Paleontology, Genomics, Animal Sciences, Neurosciences, Entomology, etc. It is worth having a look (disclaimer: I am one of the co-founder of Peer Community in Paleontology).

    2/ The main objective of Review Commons is ultimately that the authors submit their referred paper plus the peer review reports to a partner journal. The latter agreeing to minimise further evaluation in order to speed up publication. That’s all fine, but most of these journals will charge the authors APC to publish their already peer-reviewed paper. So, that raises a general question: do we really need journals anymore? Once your article is available permanently online for free on the preprint server and has been peer-reviewed, why would you want/need to pay thousands of $ to publish it in a journal (or even worst, send it to a subscription journal to be published behind a paywall)? Typesetting is surely not that costly, and can even be done easily and freely by the authors themselves (look at what mathematicians, physicits, etc. are doing with LaTeX…). I think journals will have to rethink their role in the near future because the last “advantage” they provide is also being heavily criticized: that is prestige and a distorted measure of impact used for scientific evaluation.

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    1. Hi Jeremy, many thanks for taking the time to write such an informative comment – much appreciated!
      1) Thanks for the heads-up on Peer Community which, embarrassingly, I wasn’t aware of (so a second thanks due, I guess). It sounds as though that doesn’t have such a large footprint yet in the molecular bioscience, which might explain why it had flown under my radar to date.

      To our readers, the Peer Community homepage is here: https://peercommunityin.org

      2) If I can be excused for being self-referential, we covered this exact topic in an earlier posting: https://totalinternalreflectionblog.com/2019/01/09/elife-future-present
      This was during eLife’s trial of an automatic accept for any manuscript which went out for review, which I felt was a far-sighted anticipation of exactly the scenario you describe.

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      1. Thanks for the link to your earlier post. My turn to apologize, I missed this one 😉

        Regarding the disciplines covered by PCI at the moment (see full list on website), it is dependent on which communities have organized to create and maintain a PCI. You are welcome to establish a PCI in molecular biosciences if you feel the need 😉

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