BEHAVE Lab, Department of Social and Political Sciences
University of Milan, Italy
A recent report by Cathleen O’Grady for Science has announced a new frontier in the current experiments on Peer Review: a group of Journals, including many champions of Open Science, such as F1000, BMJ Open Science, PeerJ and Royal Society Open Science, have agreed on outsourcing Peer Review to an independent, external organisation, i.e., Peer Community In Registered Reports (PCI RR). This is a non-profit organisation funded by donations from Universities and Scholarly Societies that offers Peer Review services regarding registered reports to Authors and Journals. Its goal is to shift focus of research to the hypothesis and study design avoiding the current race towards dazzling results that dominate most Journals, which sometimes overlook the importance of rigorous research.
But, here there is something more. After PCI RR reviewers’ green light on their registered reports and if lucky enough to get results out of their approved study, authors could have their paper immediately accepted for publication in the Journals partners of PCI RR, while maintaining prerogatives to decide otherwise, e.g., submitting these papers elsewhere. This would help speeding up publication and reduce the burden of Peer Review at the Journal level. Two ambitious goals streamlined in a single process!
While this experiment is super-interesting and could be disruptive, at least in fields of research where studies are pre-registered, the idea also raises concerns and doubts, especially considering the nature and usual prerogatives of Journals. First, all Journals collaborating in this new experiment almost certainly share the common vision and agenda of Open Science. This includes the idea of drastically reforming the relationship between academic Journals and the community by imposing more collaborative, horizontal platforms that would deprive traditional siloed structures on which the scholarly communication system has developed, including Journals, of their value, prestige and position.
However, the idea of collective responsibility, democratisation of science, and boundary dissolution, including outsourcing relevant activities such as Peer Review, is in conflict with the traditional role of Journal editors and the very idea of Journals. Think even only about the fact that editors are responsible to lay down development strategies of the Journal they edit, including – for instance – the type of research to promote. Do you see prestigious Journals with a long tradition of readership losing control over their reviewer pool and on what they publish and giving all this value to an external organisation? Do you see hyper-specialised Journals, which coevolved with their own community of readers, authors and reviewers by also developing their own editorial and Peer Review standards coherently with their values, norms and practices, losing autonomy and responsibility over their editorial decisions to whatever organisation? Does it make any difference if such an organisation is a non-profit association of expert volunteers?
In short, this pilot experiment must be seriously followed and systematic analysis should be performed on its effect on the quality of Peer Review and publications. While reforms and improvements of Peer Review and Journals are needed, questions remain as to why social engineering that drastically re-designs the traditional structures and hierarchies of value in the academic system, e.g., Journal Peer Review and editorial decisions, is really the best option for the common good or is only a tribute to the Open Science flag. In my opinion, outsourcing one of the most important sources of Journal value is a dead end for Journal development and sustainability.
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