Reviewer concerns about transparency of peer review process
Case text (Anonymised)
Our journal uses an internally transparent process where throughout the editor or peer review process, authors, editors and reviewers are all aware of the identities of who is involved. Reviewers are also told—when initially solicited to do a peer review—that they will be named on the final article manuscript as a reviewer. Prior to publication, the pre-print version of a text is sent to reviewers for their approval to be named (or not) as a reviewer on the article. We do not currently publish the content of the peer reviews.
We recently had concerns raised by one reviewer who disagreed with the content of the manuscript and its suitability for publication; the second reviewer was enthusiastic about the manuscript, and the editors decided to publish the text. The first reviewer accused the editors of behaving in a non-transparent manner and even of being unethical, because: (1) we did not publish the content of the critical peer review and (2) we did not have a disclaimer on the text stating that reviewers were not responsible for the content of the published manuscript (which we had assumed was obvious).
We have thus begun the process of adding the following disclaimer to all our peer reviewed texts (and backdating to all those previously published): “Reviewer evaluations are given serious consideration by the editors and authors in the preparation of manuscripts for publication. Nonetheless, being named as a reviewer does not necessarily denote approval of a manuscript by the reviewer; the editors of the journal take full responsibility for final acceptance and publication of an article”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What are the benefits of going to fully transparent review, with publication of the content of peer reviews?
• We are aware of the risks (eg, reviewers feeling inhibited from making critical comments for fear of reprisal). Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
The Forum recommended consulting the previous Forum discussion on “Who owns peer reviews” which was discussed on 9 September 2015 and covers some of the issues raised here. A summary of the discussion can be downloaded from the COPE website (http://publicationethics.org/resources/discussion-documents).
The Forum participants provided examples of different peer review models at their journal or publisher. Some journals have a fully transparent open peer review system and publish the reviewer reports alongside the article, with signed comments by the reviewers. These journals believe the benefits outweigh the risks. Other journals do not publish reviews because of the potential confusion or redundancy of publishing criticisms that no longer relate to the final published paper (the concerns having been addressed during revision). However, yet other journals post all versions of the manuscripts, with the revisions, along with the correspondence so people can follow the full history of the paper. This can prompt comments from readers, sometimes negative comments, but they feel this can be refreshing, and authors and readers value it. With this model, it can sometimes be harder to find reviewers, but it does not seem to have any impact on the decisions they recommend. Some publishers only publish those reviews which have approved acceptance of the paper—those who have recommended rejection do not have their names published on the paper to avoid conflict.
The Forum agreed that the journal has done the hard work in establishing an open peer review model with the reviewers, and getting the reviewer names on the published article. The next step is making the reviewer reports public. Some believe the benefits of openness outweigh the drawbacks.
We have implemented our proposed declaration on all peer-reviewed manuscripts, but after discussions we have decided not to proceed at this time with fully open peer-review. We are still exploring ideas.