Leading Biomedical Funders Call For Open Peer Review Of Academic Research

from the nothing-to-hide dept

Techdirt has written many posts about open access -- the movement to make digital versions of academic research freely available to everyone. Open access is about how research is disseminated once it has been selected for publication. So far, there has been less emphasis on changing how academic work is selected in the first place, which is based on the time-honored approach of peer review. That is, papers submitted to journals are sent out to experts in the same or similar field, who are invited to comment on ways of improving the work, and on whether the research should be published. Traditionally, the process is shrouded in secrecy. The reviewers are generally anonymous, and the reports they make on the submissions are not made public. Now, however, the idea of making peer review more transparent as part of the general process of becoming more open is gaining increasing impetus.

A couple of weeks ago, representatives of two leading biomedical funders -- the UK Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute -- together with ASAPbio, a non-profit organization that encourages innovation in life-sciences publishing, wrote a commentary in Nature. In it, they called for "open review", which, they point out, encompasses two distinct forms of transparency:

'Open identities' means disclosing reviewers' names; 'open reports' (also called transparent reviews or published peer review) means publishing the content of reviews. Journals might offer one or the other, neither or both.

In a 2016 survey, 59% of 3,062 respondents were in favour of open reports. Only 31% favoured open identities, which they feared could cause reviewers to weaken their criticisms or could lead to retaliation from authors. Here, we advocate for open reports as the default and for open identities to be optional, not mandatory.

The authors of the commentary believe that there are a number of advantages to open reports:

The scientific community would learn from reviewers' and editors’ insights. Social scientists could collect data (for example, on biases among reviewers or the efficiency of error identification by reviewers) that might improve the process. Early-career researchers could learn by example. And the public would not be asked to place its faith in hidden assessments.

There are, of course risks. One concern mentioned is that published reviews might be used unfairly in subsequent evaluation of the authors for grants, jobs, awards or promotions. Another possibility is the 'weaponization' of reviewer reports:

Opponents of certain types of research (for example, on genetically modified organisms, climate change and vaccines) could take critical remarks in peer reviews out of context or mischaracterize disagreements to undermine public trust in the paper, the field or science as a whole.

Despite these and other concerns mentioned in the Nature commentary, an open letter published on the ASAPbio site lists dozens of major titles that have already instituted open reports, or promise to do so next year. As well as that indication that open reports are passing from concept to reality, it's worth bearing in mind that the UK Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are major funders of biomedical research. It would be a relatively straightforward step for them to make the adoption of open reports a condition of receiving their grants -- something that would doubtless encourage uptake of the idea.

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Filed Under: biomedical, open access, open peer review, research, science
Companies: asapbio, howard hughes medical institute, wellcome trust


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  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 5 Sep 2018 @ 6:46pm

    What is good for the goose isn't always good for the gander

    "Only 31% favoured open identities, which they feared could cause reviewers to weaken their criticisms or could lead to retaliation from authors."

    The answer to this concern is more reviews. At some point, thin skinned reviewers will, via their consistent obstinacy, be found out, and either not asked to review anything else or have their reviews discounted. I would think the point is, beyond finding actual error or educating up and comers, is to validate or discredit (based upon verifiable facts and not ideology) a papers findings. If there is error, an opportunity to correct and re-review is available. If there is ideological difference, then that ideological difference can be pointed out. The church says the world is flat, no discussion. Galileo on the other hand...

    "Opponents of certain types of research (for example, on genetically modified organisms, climate change and vaccines) could take critical remarks in peer reviews out of context or mischaracterize disagreements to undermine public trust in the paper, the field or science as a whole."

    Who might also be characterized as trolls. If they have some scientific, fact based, quantifiable arguments, let the present those. If not, then, like trolls here, they can be deemed unreliable, and not asked to review again, while the mischaracterized arguments could be refuted with facts. Can the president be marked a troll? Ahem!

    Personally, I have some problems with genetically modified organisms. My problem isn't that they are genetically modified, but that we don't actually know enough to deem them safe. Give some organism 50 or so years in a closed environment, then we might know. I don't have sufficient faith in companies who have dramatic economic interest in approving something as being beneficial to mankind to believe them. Look at roundup for example. Monsanto pushed the chemical for years and made a lot of money, but in the end.... How long did that take? Well it seems Monsanto introduced roundup in the 1970's and this court case finished in 2018. So forty years or so?

    More time is needed, and if the developers don't like those economic terms, well my health and your health is worth more than their profits. I am not saying that genetics cannot lead to better things. I am saying that the testing period is much too short and possibly not critical enough. Here we get back to the investors, or shareholders wanting more today and never thinking about tomorrow. One buys a stock, new product comes out, stock price goes up, investor sells, new product kills people, company gets sued, stock prices go down, but the people that funded the original research are not impacted because they sold their stock.

    Which makes a strong argument for government funding of research and not selling the patents, but licensing companies to produce a proven, and well tested product. The government gets their investment back (taxes go down, well, in my dreams, not likely the government won't find a way to spend that money on something not useful to us), and the company makes a profit. The researcher doesn't become rich, but if things are set up well, the deal could include some incentive to the researcher from the governments licensing fees. Just a thought.


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