Peering at Open Peer Review

at the Political Methodologist: “Peer review is an essential part of the modern scientific process. Sending manuscripts for others to scrutinize is such a widespread practice in academia that its importance cannot be overstated. Since the late eighteenth century, when the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society pioneered editorial review,1 virtually every scholarly outlet has adopted some sort of pre-publication assessment of received works. Although the specifics may vary, the procedure has remained largely the same since its inception: submit, receive anonymous criticism, revise, restart the process if required. A recent survey of APSA members indicates that political scientists overwhelmingly believe in the value of peer review (95%) and the vast majority of them (80%) think peer review is a useful tool to keep themselves up to date with cutting-edge research (Djupe 2015, 349). But do these figures suggest that journal editors can rest upon their laurels and leave the system as it is?

Not quite. A number of studies have been written about the shortcomings of peer review. The system has been criticised for being too slow (Ware 2008), conservative (Eisenhart 2002), inconsistent (Smith 2006; Hojat, Gonnella, and Caelleigh 2003), nepotist (Sandström and Hällsten 2008), biased against women (Wold and Wennerås 1997), affiliation (Peters and Ceci 1982), nationality (Ernst and Kienbacher 1991) and language (Ross et al. 2006). These complaints have fostered interesting academic debates (e.g. Meadows 1998; Weller 2001), but thus far the literature offers little practical advice on how to tackle peer review problems. One often overlooked aspect in these discussions is how to provide incentives for reviewers to write well-balanced reports. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for reviewers to feel that their work is burdensome and not properly acknowledged. Further, due to the anonymous nature of the reviewing process itself, it is impossible to give the referee proper credit for a constructive report. On the other hand, the reviewers’ right to full anonymity may lead to sub-optimal outcomes as referees can rarely be held accountable for being judgmental (Fabiato 1994).

Open peer review (henceforth OPR) is largely in line with this trend towards a more transparent political science. Several definitions of OPR have been suggested, including more radical ones such as allowing anyone to write pre-publication reviews (crowdsourcing) or by fully replacing peer review with post-publication comments (Ford 2013). However, I believe that by adopting a narrow definition of OPR – only asking referees to sign their reports – we can better accommodate positive aspects of traditional peer review, such as author blinding, into an open framework. Hence, in this text OPR is understood as a reviewing method where both referee information and their reports are disclosed to the public, while the authors’ identities are not known to the reviewers before manuscript publication.

How exactly would OPR increase transparency in political science? As noted by a number of articles on the topic, OPR creates incentives for referees to write insightful reports, or at least it has no adverse impact over the quality of reviews (DeCoursey 2006; Godlee 2002; Groves 2010; Pöschl 2012; Shanahan and Olsen 2014). In a study that used randomized trials to assess the effect of OPR in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Walsh et al. (2000) show that “signed reviews were of higher quality, were more courteous and took longer to complete than unsigned reviews.” Similar results were reported by McNutt et al. (1990, 1374), who affirm that “editors graded signers as more constructive and courteous […], [and] authors graded signers as fairer.” In the same vein, Kowalczuk et al. (2013) measured the difference in review quality in BMC Microbiology and BMC Infectious Diseases and stated that signers received higher ratings for their feedback on methods and for the amount of evidence they mobilised to substantiate their decisions. Van Rooyen and her colleagues ((1999; 2010)) also ran two randomized studies on the subject, and although they did not find a major difference in perceived quality of both types of review, they reported that reviewers in the treatment group also took significantly more time to evaluate the manuscripts in comparison with the control group. They also note authors broadly favored the open system against closed peer review.

Another advantage of OPR is that it offers a clear way for referees to highlight their specialized knowledge. When reviews are signed, referees are able to receive credit for their important, yet virtually unsung, academic contributions. Instead of just having a rather vague “service to profession” section in their CVs, referees can precise information about the topics they are knowledgeable about and which sort of advice they are giving to prospective authors. Moreover, reports assigned a DOI number can be shared as any other piece of scholarly work, which leads to an increase in the body of knowledge of our discipline and a higher number of citations to referees. In this sense, signed reviews can also be useful for universities and funding bodies. It is an additional method to assess the expert knowledge of a prospective candidate. As supervising skills are somewhat difficult to measure, signed reviews are a good proxy for an applicant’s teaching abilities.

OPR provides background to manuscripts at the time of publication (Ford 2015; Lipworth et al. 2011). It is not uncommon for a manuscript to take months, or even years, to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. In the meantime, the text usually undergoes several major revisions, but readers rarely, if ever, see this trial-and-error approach in action. With public reviews, everyone would be able to track the changes made in the original manuscript and understand how the referees improved the text before its final version. Hence, OPR makes the scientific exchange clear, provides useful background information to manuscripts and fosters post-publication discussions by the readership at large.

Signed and public reviews are also important pedagogical tools. OPR gives a rare glimpse of how academic research is actually conducted, making explicit the usual need for multiple iterations between the authors and the editors before an article appears in print. Furthermore, OPR can fill some of the gap in peer-review training for graduate students. OPR allows junior scholars to compare different review styles, understand what the current empirical or theoretical puzzles of their discipline are, and engage in post-publication discussions about topics in which they are interested (Ford 2015; Lipworth et al. 2011)….(More)”