What Can Publishers Do to Encourage and Contribute to a Culture of Transparency?

September 15, 2017 Stephanie Loh

There has understandably been a lot of discussion around the transparency of peer review, but here we would like to focus on transparency within peer review. Only by being open about the way peer review is conducted can authors, reviewers and editors understand their role in ensuring the integrity of the scholarly literature and meet their responsibilities. As publishers, how can we incentivize journals to disclose the mechanisms of peer review to those involved in the process?

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Encourage Timeliness and Usefulness

We need to encourage a culture of openness about how peer review works by providing a platform for our journals and editorial offices to disclose their workflows and timelines. This ideally would be set within a larger framework that would allow for comparison among journals and would help greatly in highlighting effective (and ineffective) peer review practices. We can start by telling authors the expected time to first decision when they submit their papers, to manage their expectations. We should also make sure that authors and reviewers can understand and learn from the way that a paper is assessed during peer review by sharing all reviewer comments and the editor decision letter at each stage. Already, many of our journals are doing this and it’s our goal to make this best practice the norm.

Ensure Impartiality

Journals now routinely ask authors to disclose conflicts of interest that may have influenced their research, and editors and reviewers must be encouraged to declare any interests that might affect their ability to review an article. Peer review can only rigorously assess the merits of research if it is impartial. For this reason, many social science journals operate double-blind peer review, where the reviewers are not given the authors’ names. This is less transparent than single-blind or open peer review but many are convinced that anonymity reduces the biases that might be created by knowing of an author’s reputation and enables reviewers to offer more honest criticism.

Establish Integrity

To tackle concerns about the reproducibility of research, and following the publication of the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) guidelines, many journals are introducing ‘Registered Reports’. Authors submit their study protocols to the journal and these are reviewed before the research is carried out. Journals commit to publishing the paper in advance and this ensures that null results find a publication outlet and authors are not tempted to add post-hoc hypotheses to fit their results. An intermediate step to inviting these preliminary submissions is to ask authors to submit trial registration documents with their complete article. Undoubtedly, this improves the transparency of the research process by allowing reviewers to assess deviations from the original study protocols. However, for journals operating double-blind peer review, this can create conflict with their normal efforts to reduce bias. Sometimes Editors may decide that greater transparency is more important than reducing bias and accept that pre-registered trials will not be anonymized during peer review. Every journal will need to decide how to balance the demand for transparency in research with the need to ensure that peer review is fair.

Incentivizing Journals

In Lee and Moher’s recent Science article, they point out that journals might be reluctant to open up about their peer review process and suggest that they must be able to manage the risk that comes with the disclosure of their workflows and the data surrounding them. To do so, we need to provide journals with an environment that encourages best practice and makes it easy to implement. This could include the integration of technologies that can help detect data duplication and manipulation. It could mean a simple but meaningful annual review of each journal’s workflow, checklists and guidelines for authors, editors and reviewers, which can then be disclosed on the journal’s website in a clear and consistent manner. Each small improvement could act as an incentive for Editorial Offices to become even more open and communicative about their processes, sharing their thinking behind why and how they organize peer review. Ultimately, what’s needed is clear and rigorous policy expectations yet sufficient space for each Editorial Office to decide what best suits their individual needs.

Best Practice Standards

We believe that greater transparency about the process of peer review is necessary for the advancement of ethics and integrity in science and scholarly communications. Perhaps a first step would be for the various research communities to define what counts as best practice. To this end, we’re calling for case studies from journals that describe good practices in peer review, to help inform and inspire other editors, peer reviewers, and authors. Please, submit your case study this week, here.

With clearly defined standards, we can then assess how each journal is currently performing in its conduct of peer review. Editorial Offices will need to be willing to disclose the data necessary for the larger community to evaluate how its editorial processes measure up, using scientific methodology.  With increased disclosure of data and processes, the research community can benefit from more specific, relevant discussions as well as evidence-based guidance about what works for each discipline. And, together with the communities we work with, publishers like Wiley can continue to uphold research integrity and ethics in scholarly publishing.

Image Credit :Susan Stayer/Shutterstock

About the Author

Stephanie Loh

Peer Review Specialist, Wiley

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