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Publishing peer review reports

Posted by , on 5 September 2018

Last week, Development and our sister journal Journal of Cell Science signed an open letter coordinated by ASAPbio, signalling our intention to publish peer review reports alongside published papers. I’m really delighted to be making this commitment and wanted to take the opportunity to say a few words about our thinking behind this decision.

So why publish peer review reports and why start doing it now? The commentary in Nature that came out to accompany the open letter does, in my opinion, a great job of explaining the both the benefits and the potential pitfalls involved in publishing peer review reports and associated correspondence.  Above all, what we gain is transparency: both in terms of providing the reader additional information about the published paper and in opening up the journal’s decision-making process. Referee reports and author point-by-point responses give valuable insight into why a paper is seen by referees as important for the field, what the caveats with the work might be, and how a paper has evolved through the peer review process. I am proud of the job that Development’s Academic Editors do in helping to select papers to be published in the journal, and I’m happy to showcase the work they do in a more transparent manner.

We still have many details to work out in terms of exactly what information we will be making public, and how we will be doing it, but one thing we are clear on is that referees should still have the right to remain anonymous – both to the authors and the reader. We know from talking to the community that many referees would feel uncomfortable signing their name on a report. While open identities are a nice idea in theory, there is a strong risk that forcing referees to sign their names might compromise the quality and rigour of peer review – would you to be happy to openly criticise a paper written by someone you think might review your next manuscript, or sit on your next grant panel?  If referees want to sign their name, they are more than welcome to do so, but we do not want to make this essential.

With the protection of anonymity, though, we hope that referees will continue to do the excellent job they do in assessing papers for Development. I was part of the team at The EMBO Journal when they initiated their policy of transparent peer review, and we were concerned that referees would refuse to review papers, or would provide only ‘bland’ reports. Neither of these concerns came to pass, and the positive experience I had with transparent peer review there convinced me that it would be a good thing to implement across journals more broadly.

Development has been considering publishing peer review reports for some years. A few of our editors have been strong proponents of the policy for a long time; others have been more cautious – primarily for the reasons detailed above and in the Nature commentary. A few years ago, we conducted a community survey asking about priorities in peer review innovations, and this told us that there were other things our readers cared about more – such as introducing cross-referee commenting (which we implemented a couple of years ago). Now, however, we feel that the time is right to start planning for publishing referee reports – and this is something that our incoming Editor-in-Chief James Briscoe is  keen to implement, with the full support of all our editors. Early reactions to our announcement on social media suggest that this move will be welcomed by the community. We will be working with Journal of Cell Science to implement transparent peer review; the other Company of Biologists journals will be reviewing how things go at Development and Journal of Cell Science and consulting with their communities before deciding on their own plans.

We hope to introduce this policy in early 2019. For now, though, we welcome any feedback you may have, and look forward to sharing further details as our plans progress.



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