Transparency and access in peer review

Peer review is intended to enhance and validate reports of new scientific studies, and it is the basis upon which journal editors decide what should and should not be published. As a human endeavour it can be susceptible to error or bias, and in recent years it has often been argued that the solution to perceived problems with fairness and quality in peer review is to make it fully open – in other words, to extend open access to peer review.

Fully open peer review means publishing the peer review reports, signed by the reviewers, alongside published papers. The argument is that transparency increases accountability and reduces bias in the reviewing process. Consequently, open peer review has become a key part of the debate about open science. 

However, there is evidence[1] that suggests reviewers prefer to remain anonymous, and are less likely to write critical reviews if their name appears publicly. This is thought to be a particular concern for early career researchers. But even providing access to anonymous peer reviews can still greatly increase the transparency of the review process, which may lead to an improvement in review quality and, crucially, increase overall confidence that the peer review process is working effectively. Additionally, the published reports may have educational value for general readers, students and potential future reviewers. This model has become known as transparent peer review.

Transparent peer review at IOP Publishing

This week, we will launch a one-year trial of transparent peer review. This trial forms part of our wider commitment to increasing transparency in support of open access and open science. Two of our fully open access journals  ̶  JPhys Materials and Environmental Research Letters  ̶  will take part in the trial. We will test the demand for transparent peer review in our communities by offering both authors and reviewers the choice to opt in or out of openly displaying the reviewer reports (and author responses) alongside the published article.

The peer review content will only appear when everyone opts in, and will then be free to access by anyone. Reviewers will also be able to sign their report if they wish. As well as measuring uptake, we will monitor any effect on the willingness of reviewers to review a paper, and the quality of the reports submitted under the transparent peer review model. 


Partnering with Publons

A challenge facing any publisher wanting to implement transparent peer review is how to present this additional information to interested readers. We are collaborating with Publons on a sophisticated workflow solution for our journals, and we are now ready to open for submissions. We hope this exciting new development can bring greater transparency to research published in IOP Publishing journals and encourage wider openness in and access to the scientific process. We look forward to reporting on the outcomes of our trial next year.

Simon Harris
Managing Editor, IOP Publishing

[1] Bravo G et al 2019 The effect of publishing peer review reports on referee behavior in five scholarly journals Nat. Commun. 10 322.

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