When Nature Communications launched in 2010, innovation was at its heart. The journal was already a first in many respects for the Nature Portfolio, and has continued to evolve over the past twelve years by championing openness and transparency.
To mark this year’s Peer Review Week the Chief Editors of this Open Access journal wrote on the journal’s transparent peer review (one of the first journals to do so) and research integrity.
At launch, Nature Communications offered an open access option to authors, becoming the first Nature-branded journal to do so. This proved popular, with over 45% of authors choosing to make their work openly available and reusable in the first year. Not long after, in 2014, the journal went one step further and made the leap to fully open access: all manuscripts submitted from that point were published under an open access licence. The success of the journal helped show that high-quality, selectivity, and open access can go hand in hand.
Open access made the papers accessible – and reusable – for all readers. But there was another source of information that remained hidden to readers, namely the peer review reports and author responses. There can be a wealth of information in these exchanges: they involve critical analysis and discussion by experts in the field, and they document changes, caveats, and uncertainties that occur as the initial submission moves toward publication. Furthermore, they represent a considerable amount of time and effort from all sides during the process. So why should all of this be hidden from readers?
It was with this in mind that we became an early adopter of transparent peer review, and provided the option to publish reviewer reports and author responses alongside the paper. It was unclear how authors would respond, but we were delighted to see most chose to publish the reviews. Currently around 70% of authors opt-in, and in all fields – including those not served by transparent peer review – the majority of authors chose to do so.
We hope that these files help readers see a bit more of the work that goes beyond the paper and give insights into how the peer review process works, and believe that they are useful sources of scientific discussion in their own right. Additionally, opening up these discussions can be very useful for early career researchers who will have had limited engagement in the process as either author or reviewer.
Everyone agrees that the robustness of science shines when independent investigations of the same problem arrive at similar conclusions. Paradoxically however, being the first to publish a discovery in a peer reviewed journal is given a high importance by current research evaluation systems. In 2020, we published an editorial in which we commit to disregard from our editorial evaluation any competing works that are published while a submission to our journal is under review or under revision by the authors. We also thought it was important to show that we appreciate the importance of studies reproducing published results: we took this policy one step further and committed to not decline publication on grounds of novelty when there is a recent, independently-performed publication reporting similar results.
In addition to helping show the reproducibility of work, this policy also aims to reduce the negative effects on researchers and students who experience the disappointment of being ‘scooped’ before they can publish.
Much has been written about the danger of publication bias in statistical analysis done after results are collected and how it has led to a reproducibility crisis in several fields. To tackle this issue, the research communities of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists have advocated for the need to peer-review study plans ahead of the investigation and for journals to offer publication of such studies once completed, regardless of the results. They developed a format called ‘registered reports’ which is now adopted at over 200 journals. In 2019, we started to offer this format for human behaviour studies submitted to the journal and we published our first registered reports in August 2022. This year, we are delighted to be part of a partnership with Cancer Research UK and several other publishers in an initiative aimed at encouraging researchers from fields of research linked to cancer epidemiology and diagnostics and funded by the UK based charity to embrace this format. We hope that other communities will soon see the benefits of the format and of receiving expert advice on their study plans ahead of starting the investigation as we believe that this form of peer review warrants a high level of confidence in the results obtained.
We have come a long way over the past twelve years, but we know there is more to do. We have other initiatives in the works, so look forward to some more announcements coming soon!
About the authors
Enda Bergin is Chief Editor, Chemistry and Biotechnology at Nature Communications
Nathalie Le Bot is Chief Editor, Health and Clinical Sciences at Nature Communications