"By the Peers, For the Peers"

(February 28th, 2012) Three Finnish ecologists aren’t out to revolutionise the much discussed current peer reviewing system but they would, at least, like to improve it. Here is how...

There may be a long way ahead before the furious debates on open access and policies of academic publishing are solved. However, there is one thing that the opposing sides share: the belief that the peer review system can and should be improved.

But what are the problems with the existing peer review system? One is the growing imbalance between the number of manuscripts being submitted and the available ´peers´ to review them. Not that there aren't enough qualified scientists to review their colleagues' work; it's just that reviewing is time-consuming and not exactly the most pleasant way to spend one's time with no recognition or reward in return. Also, not everybody really senses the commitment they owe to the community. Fortunately, as it appears, there is a consensus emerging between scientists that they should do more to become involved in saving the peer review system because the quality of published research is reliant thereon. This is what gave birth to the new initiative, Peerage of Science.

Founded by three ecologists from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and launched in November 2011, Peerage of Science already has over 600 scientist members, or ´peers´, from all around the world. Each peer can review any of the submitted manuscripts and evaluate other review reports. When review and revision of an article is finished, participating journals can make a publishing offer. Authors can submit their peer-reviewed manuscripts to non-participating journals, as well.

The interesting thing is that Peerage of Science combines various suggested strategies for peer-reviewing in one package. For example, to keep a balance between demand and supply, one has to review two manuscripts before submitting one's own paper. To increase the incentive for a better quality of reviews and to provide a mechanism for recognition, reviewers will evaluate and score other reviewers' work. There is an Annual Reviewer Prize of €5,000 to be given to the reviewer with the highest sum of scores accumulated during the preceding year.

Currently, most peers are ecologists and evolutionary biologists but almost all other areas of biology and life sciences can be spotted in the list of peers' affiliations and expertise. Some are even from Mathematics and Physics departments. But Peerage of Science plans to expand the community to cover all fields of science where peer review is needed. Janne-Tuomas Seppänen, one of the three founders, told Lab Times, What is needed in each new field is a ´core’ group of people wishing to put in a little effort to spread the word”.

Given the social-network structure of this system, this core group can invite their colleagues and gradually achieve a considerable size to provide reviewers across a range of specific topics. Although currently, scientists can only join via invitation from a ´peer’, you don’t have to wait for that if you think you should participate. Janne explains, “A small group of colleagues in a field not yet represented in Peerage of Science can contact us, we will check identities and credentials and then help that group ignite the growth in their field”.

In some respects, the success of Peerage of Science depends on how many journals will participate. So far, three have joined the community and are “trialling the service”: Ecography, Ethology and AMBIO. And there are talks with larger publishers, too, who seem to be on board if the scientific community chooses to use this service. There is, in fact, no reason why journals wouldn't be interested. Organising peer review costs money and this system is likely to minimise this cost. So, if some reluctance to change and conservatism is holding them back from joining in, an increasing participation from the scientific community can certainly give them a push. This seems like a good opportunity for the scientific community to make for that long-craved change in the publishing landscape.

Speaking of change in the publishing landscape, although Peerage of Science claims absolute impartiality on the subject of publishing models, the implications of an independent peer review system in Open Access are undeniable. Although Open Access journals have already successfully incorporated pre- and post-publishing peer review strategies, the peer review process still remains one main argument of the opponents to Open Access. Could a system that provides the classical peer review process but now arranged by scientists themselves rather than journal editors, revolutionise the hotly debated publishing structures?

Janne-Tuomas Seppänen believes not. He explains that Peerage of Science is not at all revolutionary, in the sense that it doesn’t seek to bring about fundamental changes in existing structures (in other words, publishers are safe). Rather, its focus is entirely and exclusively on improving the peer review process and making the benefits of that available to all parties involved. Janne emphasises that “Peerage of Science seeks to increase freedom for all and hence does not participate in any way in the agreements authors and journals make with each other”. Although he admits that “it will be interesting to see what emergent patterns arise from these new freedoms”.

Open Access advocates insist that discussions about reforming and optimising the peer review system should not be mixed up with Open Access, as it only confuses matters even more. But this time perhaps it is different. Providing the respected classical peer review process for manuscripts, independent of a third party, could eliminate the main criticism of Open Access. Although Peerage of Science is a good thing on its own, it's also very likely to lend a strong hand to the Open Access movement. Well, provided that it grows strong itself. So, focusing on one thing at a time...let's spread the word!

Bahar Gholipour

Picture: Bahar Gholipour


Last Changes: 08.03.2012