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Editorial: Developing peer review

Posted by , on 7 April 2015

This editorial first appeared in Development.

 

Those of you reviewing for Development from this week onwards will notice some changes to our Reviewer Guidelines and Report Forms. After consultation with our Academic Editors, Advisory Board and the wider community, we have significantly revised the form that referees complete when reviewing a paper. We hope that these modifications will help our referees give clear, constructive and focussed feedback to authors, resulting in a more efficient and pain-free peer-review process.

Development is proud of the papers we publish, and we believe that a rigorous approach to peer review is an essential part of ensuring that our articles are useful and interesting to the community. We frequently hear that ‘you can trust a Development paper’ or that ‘papers in Development stand the test of time’, and this is in no small part thanks to the time and diligence devoted by the numerous members of our community who provide helpful and detailed guidance to authors when reviewing manuscripts. However, over recent years, concerns have been growing in the broader scientific community about how well the traditional peer review system works: there is a perception of excessively demanding referees (and editors) who make authors jump through hoops to get their papers published, as well as the worry that it does not adequately ensure that published papers are accurate. We have discussed Development’s efforts to ensure the integrity of its papers in a recent editorial (Pourquié et al., 2014), and now we have taken steps to try and make sure that the peer-review process is fair and efficient, while still maintaining the high quality of published papers.
 

Rolling out new Reviewer Guidelines and Report Forms may seem like a small step in this direction, but we hope this will encourage a shift in the mindset of reviewers. There can be a tendency for a review to read like a ‘shopping list’ of potential experiments, some of which may be important to support the major conclusions of the paper under consideration, but with others that are somewhat peripheral or that may form the basis of the next paper. Instead, we believe that referees should focus on two key questions: how important is the work for the community, and how well do the data support the conclusions? Referees can help our editors to make the best decisions by clearly spelling out what they see to be the advance reported and its likely significance to the field. Requests for additional data should primarily be aimed at ensuring that the conclusions are sufficiently well founded, rather than aimed at potentially interesting extensions of the study. In other words, what are the necessary revisions, not the ‘nice to- have’s? When the decision on a manuscript is positive, this should give authors a shorter butmore directed set of revisions (experimental or otherwise); when a paper is rejected, the authors should have a clear idea of why the paper was not considered suitable for the journal.

In the new form, we also specifically encourage referees to comment on issues of data integrity – be it the validity of statistical tests used or the possible presence of inappropriate data manipulation. We also request that all remarks pertinent to the decision on a manuscript be made in the comments to the authors, rather than provided confidentially to the editor. Finally, we ask that referees give credit to colleagues who have helped them to review a paper, so that early career scientists can be mentored in how to review a paper, and can progress from reviewing under the auspices of their PI’s name to becoming independent referees. For further information, we encourage you to look at our new Referee Guidelines online (http://dev.biologists.org/site/misc/referees.xhtml).

 
We are of course aware that these changes are conservative compared with some of the more radical approaches in peer review that have been implemented or trialled elsewhere. Recent innovations include the publishing of referee reports (pioneered by The EMBO Journal), inter-referee discussions and report consolidation (as embraced by eLife), open peer review (where referees are named, such as at the British Medical Journal) or its converse double-blind peer review (currently being trialled, though on an optional basis, at the Nature titles) and post-publication review (as at F1000 Research).We have yet to be convinced that any journal or organisation (ourselves included) has hit upon the ideal peer-review system, but we are watching these new approaches with interest and will continue to review and revise our own system. Meanwhile, we hope that the changes announced here will help referees to provide constructive feedback to authors, editors to make well-justified decisions and authors to focus their revisions in a more efficient manner. As always, we welcome the community’s feedback on these changes as we go forwards.

 
Finally, shepherding papers through the review process requires not only editors and referees, but also strong administrative support. Development is fortunate in this regard, with a highly dedicated team. However, we have had to say farewell to a key part of that team: Jenny Ostler, our senior administrator, retired from the journal last month. Jenny had been with Development for over 26 years, and many of you will know her by e-mail or over the phone. Always friendly and efficient in helping authors, referees and editors to navigate the system, Jenny has been an immense asset to the journal and will be greatly missed. We’re sure you will join us in wishing her a long, healthy and happy retirement.

 

Reference
Pourquié, O., Brown, K. and Moulton, C. (2014). Ethical development. Development 141, 3439-3440.




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2 thoughts on “Editorial: Developing peer review”

  1. In my view the updated reviewer guidelines are certainly a step in the right direction. Focusing reviews on the key issues will save time for all parties involved and will overall improve peer review.
    However, I must agree that these changes are conservative relative to what is tried at other journals and I regret that Development is watching changes in peer review from a distance instead of taking initiative. I am particularly disappointed that Development will continue to not publish peer review files along the final paper. Whereas there is much controversy around proposed changes to reviewer and author anonymity, several arguments have been made for publication of peer review files: (1) Review files are a valuable resource for junior scientists learning how to write effective reviews. (2) Review files often contain additional information and questions which do not end up in the final paper but can be very informative for the reader. (3) Peer review reports legitimate the decision of the editor. (4) The knowledge that reviews will end up in the public domain provides an additional incentive for reviewers to provide fair, balanced and well written reviews.
    On the other hand I have difficulty thinking of legitimate reasons for not publishing anonymous peer review files. It would be great if you could give more insights into the view at Development regarding the publication of review files. Many thanks.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Fillip.

      Publishing referee reports is something we have discussed among the editorial team. With limited time and resources, we have to prioritise changes to the journal, and we all felt that it was more important to make these changes to the reviewer guidelines and forms than it would be to publish the review files. This has taken some time to implement, and now that we have the new system in place, we would like to see it bed in (and monitor how referees respond to the changes) before making any further changes.

      Having been part of the team at The EMBO Journal that introduced the transparent review process, I appreciate the advantages of the system, which you clearly spell out in your comment. It does also mean that I recognise the hurdles involved, many of which revolve around workload and workflows. That said, we certainly have not made any firm decision either way – it is something we will continue to review and discuss among the editorial team, and potentially also with the broader community.

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