Strengthening trust in peer review through transparency

By: Sowmya Swaminathan and Maria Hodges, Wed Sep 23 2020
Nicola Jones and Thea Sherer

Author: Sowmya Swaminathan and Maria Hodges

Ensuring the integrity of the scientific record is relevant not only for researchers and academics but society at large. If the public are to trust research findings that have a direct impact on their lives, research must be credible and accurate. Peer review – subjecting research to the independent scrutiny of experts who can then help improve the work – is an essential first step to ensure that published research is reliable. Springer Nature has long recognised the need to test new ways of increasing the trust and value of the peer review process. Through BMC and Nature Research we have worked on improving transparency as a way of opening up the peer review process and earning trust.

When we ask researchers about how the peer review process can be improved, they tell us they want to see how publishing decisions are made and want greater assurance that referees and editors act with integrity and without bias. In a 2017 survey of Nature referees, more than half said peer review could be more transparent – and expected publishers to do more to make it so. Transparent peer review – the publication of peer review reports alongside the final paper – can help to provide researchers with this information and strengthen trust in the overall system. 

Transparent peer review is part of a broader set of open peer review models that can be adapted in line with the ethos of open science. Within the broad umbrella of transparent peer review there is a spectrum of transparency. Some journals use transparent peer review as the required form of peer review for that journal, while others give authors the choice to opt-in. There is also variation in the degree of transparency, with some journals releasing all peer review reports alongside relevant correspondence and author responses and editorial decision letters, while others only publish the reviewer reports. 

In celebration of #PeerRevWeek20, which focuses on #TrustInPeerReview, we discuss how transparent peer review initiatives at BMC and Nature Research have strengthened trust in our journals and the underlying peer review system. 

BMC pioneering alternative peer review models

As early as 1999, the BMC journals began experimenting with ways in which the peer review process could be made more transparent when it began publishing reviewer names in its medical journals. The publication of peer review reports alongside a ‘pre-publication history’ began a few years later for the medical journals of the BMC Series. On the basis of feedback from the community, the medical journals of the BMC Series and BMC Medicine have recently adopted transparent peer review. This means for all published manuscripts, the reviewer reports are published along with the author’s response to the reviewers comments. Reviewer names are only published if that reviewer opts in. 

Our next step is to transform all remaining BMC Series titles to transparent peer review, including BMC Chemistry, and we expect to achieve this by the end of the year. In addition, several journals, such as Environmental Health operate open peer review (where the reviewer’s identity is revealed).

Transparency in the Nature-branded research journals

In 2006, Nature Research began a pilot with the goal of including community input into the peer review process. At the time the pilot showed that the community had little enthusiasm for opening up the process. Ten years later, Nature Communications launched a different initiative focusing on transparent peer review, which allows authors to opt in to having their peer review reports published alongside author response letters. This second pilot indicated a pivotal shift in the research community towards more transparent peer review processes and in its first year Nature Communications had a 60% adoption rate. The latest data indicate that this is now around 70% of Nature Communications authors. The demand from the community for a more transparent peer review process has led a large number of journals and publishers to offer a wide spectrum of transparent peer review. 

From 2019-2020, transparent peer review is available at Nature, seven other Nature-branded primary research journals as well as the Communications journals. We soon hope to be able to share data about the percentage of authors who choose transparent peer review. 

Improved transparency through In Review

Springer Nature has always been a strong supporter of early sharing and actively encourages its authors to post their early manuscripts as preprints. In Review is a journal-integrated pre-print deposition service that allows early insight into peer review. Earlier this year we expanded the free pre-print service In Review, which was developed in partnership with ResearchSquare, to cover not just BMC and Springer open access journals, but the Nature-branded research primary research journals too. In Review, however, is much more than a preprint service. Through its integration with peer review, it enables authors to see specific details of peer review, providing a high level of transparency into an often 'hidden' process. Increasing transparency through early-sharing services like In Review is another way researchers and communities can be sure of the trustworthiness of the peer review process. 

Transparent peer review increases trust in the peer review process not just for researchers and authors, but also for the public. It provides important expert context for scientific literature for the non-expert reader, journalists, and policy makers. Those entities that assess research such as funders and institutions can use reviewer reports to assess the strength and significance of a study, rather than relying on the journal brand as a proxy for quality. Finally, peer review reports are an undervalued scholarly contribution which can be acknowledged more easily through publication. 

There are tremendous opportunities for Springer Nature to lead the way in peer review innovation and strengthen the trust peer review needed to ensure the integrity of the scientific record. We strive to pilot approaches that make peer review more portable, open, less biased, more inclusive. Springer Nature is committed to innovating and strengthening peer review to improve transparency, root out bias and strengthen trust in the process.

Nicola Jones and Thea Sherer

Author: Sowmya Swaminathan and Maria Hodges

Sowmya Swaminathan is Head of Editorial Policy & Research Integrity for Nature Research

Sowmya is responsible for the development of editorial policies including policies relevant to rigour and reproducibility, research integrity, publication ethics, bioethics, biosecurity and scholarly communications. She chairs the Nature Research Policy Forum and the Nature journal Reproducibility Steering Group. Sowmya has been at Nature journals since 2003. 

Maria Hodges is Executive Editor for the BMC Series

Maria has a degree in Biochemistry from Imperial College London, and a PhD in Biochemistry from Cancer Research UK (London Research Institute). She has been an Editor for Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, the Scientific Publications Manager for Cancer Research UK, managing the British Journal of Cancer, and an Editor of Genome Medicine. She is passionate about open access publishing and open science.