In defence of a Public Peer Review System

Scientists are used to having papers rejected. It comes with the territory, but usually the reviewers had some good reason — and give it to you — to reject the manuscript in the first place. Now this . . .

Many times the reviewer knows what he’s doing and the comments actually help improve the paper, but sometimes the reviews are just plain incomprehensible and look like they were written by a monkey punching a keyboard while watching themselves on the mirror.

I’ve seen reviewers showing a total lack of understanding about the subjects in hand, being partial, being biased, or worse, not even being able to write a sentence in English. Some reviewers I’ve read, wrote in some language similar to English that until today none of the authors or the editors have been able to understand. A mystery for the science historians of the future. Worse, there are reviewers that protected by anonymity are bluntly rude. Real douchebags. This was another of these cases.

It came from a reviewer saying that the authors should consider finding some male scientist to co-author a paper that was authored only by female scientists. Worse, he went on rambling about the marginal superiority of male scientists. You can get the details of this particular case at RetractionWatch. The tweet above is just an illustration of this reviewer medieval thinking.

A matter of Accountability and Public Peer Review

This leads me to think that we urgently need to end this lack of accountability in the review process. We need to quickly implement Public Peer Review. The idea is that first drafts go to an online repository, like arXiv for example. Reviewers will do their work and publish their reviews as comments in the repository. No anonymity, no protection of douches hiding behind the journal editors. They can still send private emails to the editors, but then what they write publicly has to match what they write privately. Reviews should be public. Authors can improve on their paper and submit a new version. At this point, everyone knows what is going on. Good reviewers will be praised by their scientific acuity and honesty. No one will keep saying things behind a blind knowing they will not become exposed to ridicule. It’s time to expunge those douches by exposing them publicly.

I imagine that some authors, editors and reviewers won’t like this open process. In any case, I imagine that it might be possible to keep the process private until sometime before publication. After publication, this online repository should become available so anyone could trace back the process. I prefer it to stay public always, but I imagine that some authors would prefer to have it closed mainly when collaborating with industry and NDAs were signed.

In any case, I think that the gatekeeper of this should be the author of the paper, not the editor or the reviewer. When submitting a new article the author should be able to keep it private for some time — say 1 month — after the last reviewer submitted his review. This is to give time to the authors to respond to the reviewers comments with a corrected version. After that month passes, the paper and comments should be public. Obviously the authors can go public with the process anytime before that date.

Finally, with all this changes, I also think that all papers should have a byline with the reviewers in the final print. What is the problem of having “This paper was reviewed by X and Y, reviewers comments are available online at HTTP…” in a footnote of the first page? Credit is due to where credit is due. Give reviewers credit for their good work and let the scientific community judge them when they are not good. Also, many other scientists, namely junior scientists starting their careers could learn from good reviewers. They could improve their own reviews by seeing how good scientist were doing theirs.

Being public about the process, is the first step to show the quality of your work. I don’t know why so many are afraid of having their work be publicly scrutinised. In a time where versioning is so simple — git is 10 years old now — where tracing back changes and accountability for actions is so important, I don’t understand how we are still in the feudal ages of protecting reviewers identities. Can it be because most reviewing work IS NOT PAID by journals and they just don’t care to do a quality work? If that is so, why keep this BROKEN SYSTEM?