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Transparency: A new model for peer review

Updated: Feb 10

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century transformed science, philosophy and academic study with its new insistence for reason, evidence, logic and freedom. What the Renaissance did for art, the Enlightenment replicated for the sciences. One of its legacies is the peer review system, which, more than 300 years after it developed, remains the only internationally recognised means of scrutinising ideas and validating research.

The importance of peer review cannot be underestimated because it is the only effective procedure for introducing new thoughts and discoveries into settled fields, finding an accommodation for novel ideas within established disciplines and promoting professional and public confidence in progress.

Peer review origins and development

Opinions differ about the precise origins of peer review. Some historians of academia date it to the publication of a collection of peer-reviewed medical articles by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1731. Others consider Henry Oldenburg’s The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, launched in 1665, to mark the true beginning of the practice. Whatever the merits of the competing claims, peer review has been with us for at least 300 years and shows no sign of being supplanted as the primary means of examining, testing and legitimising new scientific and academic theories.

However, peer review has not come down to us unchanged. The original format is what we call single-blind or single-anonymised, in which the reviewer’s identity is concealed. The rationale for this is that anonymity encourages candour and impartiality. Potential objections to this original format were that a reviewer who was not entirely disinterested might exploit their role to delay the publication, especially if it suited them to bury the findings or to be excessively harsh in their criticism.

As a reaction to these perceived weaknesses, the double-blind or double-anonymised review was developed, in which both author and reviewer remain anonymous. The expectation was a significant reduction in the possibility of reviewer bias against a known academic and the reasonable assumption that the findings would be judged entirely on their own merits – free from any extraneous baggage. However, one of the failings of this idea is that in relatively small academic fields, an anonymous author’s style or subject might render them easily identifiable.

While not addressing that last point, a third form emerged: triple-blind or triple-anonymised peer review. Here, anonymous reviewers assess papers written by authors whose identity is unknown either to the reviewer or the editor of the publication to which it has been submitted. Once again, the mischief this sought to address was that of conscious or unintentional bias.

Intriguingly, an entirely different strategy is adopted under open review in which there is no anonymity whatsoever. The thinking here is that complete openness makes it harder to pass off malicious attacks as dispassionate commentary or to cover a plagiarist’s tracks. However, dissenters fear it leads to unproductive restraint and excessive politeness.

What came next?

Transparent peer review is a relatively recent development that builds upon the innovations of open peer review by making it available for inspection at every stage of the process. The terms ‘transparent’ and ‘open’ are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to emphasise the significant difference in scope of the transparent model.

Full transparency aims to eliminate bias and partisanship and further explain the methodologies used – revealing a form of audit trail of the ideas and exchanges that constitute the history of the paper and its reviews. It throws light not just on the review and its subject but also illuminates the editorial decision-making at the journal considering publication.

By making available editorial correspondence, reviewer reports and author responses, the publishing journal can demonstrate how and why it decided to publish and allows readers to assess the strength of the evidence upon which that decision was made.

The quality of the review comes under as much scrutiny as the paper it is reviewing. However, far from undermining the integrity of the process, it strengthens it by showing that there is no hidden agenda, no pressure to compromise, and if there should be axes to grind, they are ground in public.

Ultimately, peer review is a system that is unsustainable without trust. There may have been sufficient confidence in the reliability of the single-blind approach 300 years ago, but in the modern information age, it is perhaps inevitable that academics would wish to see the workings of the reviewers rather than simply accepting judgements. Transparent peer review represents a bold and thorough attempt to meet that wish.

It has many advantages, not the least of which is that it appears to find favour with the younger generation of academics for whom open-source software and open access to research have become a way of life. In addition, it holds up any possible conflicts of interest to the light and cannot easily be exploited as a vehicle for the advancement of an individual’s career.

A more positive benefit is the way in which transparent peer review makes it possible and even encourages constructive feedback, thereby extending the process into a discussion that can, in turn, generate new insights. This clearly enhances credibility and authority. It also provides educational value in giving other academics a fuller understanding of the review process. In many ways, it is a mode of peer review whose time has come, now that digital methods of publishing, archiving and accessing have matured to a level at which sharing the entire review history is simple. If the will is consistent, then the fact that technology has made it easy suggests that what is possible will become the norm.

Peer review has never been a fixed practice. As soon as two academics disagreed about the efficacy of one model, an alternative would inevitably be investigated. It has developed and diversified over the years. Transparent peer review may be the contemporary preference, but there is no expectation that it will entirely supersede the other models. However, there are many pressures – some of them unstoppable – to expand its application. Far from representing a loosening of the rules, it seems to bring many more advantages than disadvantages in terms of rigour, accountability and impartiality.

PA EDitorial’s management services are equipped to handle all forms of peer review, including the specific demands and complexities of the transparent model. We are fully skilled to manage the workflows and communication channels to ensure that, even in this most complex of processes, the interests of authors, reviewers, editors, and the wider academic community are equally and comprehensively served.

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