Transparency in peer review: double blind, single blind, transparent review

Peer review is at the core of scientific publishing, as, when assessing articles, journal editors rely on the opinion of experts, “peers” of the authors of a submitted manuscript, to make decisions over the quality of the scientific work. Recently, the whole peer review system has been shaken, and critics have been raised regarding its value and sustainability.

Researchers have expressed concerns related to the fact that, for most journals, reviewers provide their comments for free, reviewing other people’s work on the assumption that others will review their own research. However, this methodology has its own flaws, as it implies that researchers, often already

overworking, provide their service without a compensation. A few journals, for example The Lancet, provide a small honorarium for reviewers, but this practice is very rare.

Another aspect that has raised criticism is the lack of transparency of the peer review process. Usually, peer review is perceived as a “black box”: once a paper is published, readers will only see the finalized work, without knowing about the iterations that the manuscript went through, and without the possibility to assess whether the peer review was conducted properly. Similarly, most of the times journals perform a so called “single blind” peer review, where reviewers will be able to see the authors of the work, while remaining anonymous. This might carry some problematics, putting the authors in a disadvantaged position, and allowing the reviewers to be somehow unaccountable in case of malpractice.

To try and implement transparency in peer review, and overcome at least some of the problematics inherent to this procedure, some new methods of peer review are being tested.

Double blind peer review, for example, maintains the anonymity of both reviewers and authors, protecting therefore the authors from potentially biased reviewers. Open peer review, on the other hand, discloses author and reviewer identities to one another at any point during the peer review or publication process, although reviewers’ identities might not yet be disclosed to the public. That way, reviewers will be more accountable towards the authors of the work they are evaluating.

Finally, transparent peer review shows the complete peer review process from initial review to final decision. That way, alongside the published article, readers will be able to access also the full peer review history: reviewer reports, editor decision letters and authors’ responses. This way, reviewers, authors and editors work is open to the public: this should promote integrity of all the parts.

All these new strategies are designed to enhance peer review quality, although it has to be noted that the concept itself of peer review has sometimes been attacked, as some suggest that this is simply making harder, or longer, for authors to disseminate their work. In response to this, public archives of non-peer reviewed works, such as BioRxive or MedRxive, arose, to promote accessibility of scientific and medical publications.

Nevertheless, peer review remains the cornerstone of scientific and medical publishing, and, despite all those issues, there is not -or not yet- a valid enough alternative. For authors, the type of peer review system a journal uses should be an important screening method to select the best journal for their work, as authors’ preferences will be able to guide the evolution of peer review.

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