THE process by which academics check the work of their colleagues before it goes to print—peer review, in the argot—is nearly as old as scientific publishing itself. But like every human endeavour, it is fraught with human frailties and the process can be hijacked in a variety of ways.
As a result, and as with many other aspects of publishing, peer review is the subject of much experimentation. One upstart publisher is trying to codify good behaviour.
Peer review’s current incarnation took shape in the middle of the 20th century: authors submit a manuscript to a publisher, who then seeks out academics suitable to comment on it; they then submit critiques anonymously to the authors, who amend the work to reflect the critiques. The system nearly works. The reasons for anonymity are manifold, but that information asymmetry often causes trouble, with reviewers shooting down rivals’ work, pinching ideas, or just plain dragging their feet (overwhelmingly, reviewing is unpaid).
There are a few green shoots of innovation in the field, though. One idea is to remove the veil and carry out peer review publicly: reviewers’ identities and their reports are published online for all to see. Proponents reckon this provides incentives for both honesty and courtesy. Faculty of 1000, an online biology and medicine publisher, has taken this tack with F1000 Research, its flagship journal.
Indeed it is taking the idea further. Michael Markie, an associate publisher for F1000 Research, believes that a commitment to change must also come from authors and reviewers, not just journal editors and publishers. Mr Markie was a co-author of a paper—itself the subject of fervent open peer-review—which proposed a kind of oath and a set of guidelines to encourage even-handed and helpful behaviours for reviewers. The oath reads
Principle 1: I will sign my name to my review
Principle 2: I will review with integrity
Principle 3: I will treat the review as a discourse with you; in particular, I will provide constructive criticism
Principle 4: I will be an ambassador for the practice of open science
Faculty of 1000 has begun to encourage reviewers to cite the oath in their reports, in the hope that other publishers will adopt the practice as well. Already, Pensoft Publishers and the Journal of Open Research Software are following suit.