João Pedro de Magalhães

Open Peer Review

"Just as energy is the basis of life itself, and ideas the source of innovation, so is innovation the vital spark of all human change, improvement and progress." — Theodore Levitt


Although peer review in science is plagued by elitism, bias, and abuse, it is deemed by many as essential to scientific process. Ironically, peer review has no valid scientific base. The few studies done on peer review suggest that reviewers -- also known as referees -- vary markedly in their opinions. Moreover, peer review does not prevent scientific fraud, hardly detects errors, and only modestly improves scientific quality (Smith, 1999; van Rooyen et al., 1999; Rothwell and Martyn, 2000). Importantly, peer review continues to be a conservative, risk-adverse process that smothers innovative and unconventional ideas (O'Reilly, 2002), particularly in controversial fields like, for example, my own field of aging research.

In some fields, such as astronomy, a large body of research communication already takes place through preprints deposited in archives such as arXiv.org. Nonetheless, anonymous peer review is the trademark of most scientific journals, at least in the life sciences. Since the Internet has made the peer review process faster and cheaper, it appears peer review will remain in the foreseeable future, and hence the benefits and disadvantages of peer review will not be further discussed herein. The aim of this essay is to make the case in favor of open peer review.

Open peer review consists of signed reviews that can be posted on the Internet together with accepted and refused manuscripts and grant proposals. The idea is to have a more transparent process not only in scientific journals but, most of all, in granting organizations. (After all, anyone with enough tenacity can have a paper accepted given the dozens of scientific journals nowadays, but in most countries there are only a few granting agencies.) I defend that transparency and openness must be implemented in scientific journals, granting agencies, job applications, and every single step of the academia. Secrecy forges despotism. Transparency is always the best protection against abuse.

Anonymity is based on the principle that anonymous reviewers will be more honest and objective. For example, open peer review may hinder junior scientists from rejecting works by more senior colleagues. This coward behavior is nearly exclusive of science. In the arts and even in politics criticism is open and serves an important role in making ideas stronger (Brown, 2003). All fields in science have suffered revolutionary schisms because of new ideas that overtake the establishment. Consequently, reviewers must be prevented from smothering creativity and originality.

Overall, authors are largely in favor of open peer review (van Rooyen et al., 1999). The quality of anonymous reviews has been deemed as slightly inferior to non-anonymous reviews but this has not been always statistically significant (Godlee, 2002). What is important is that abuse by reviewers is mitigated by eliminating anonymity. Open peer review also brings accountability and credit to reviewers.

Mostly for ethical reasons, the British Medical Journal already has an open peer review system. Reviewers are asked to sign their reviews and declare any competing financial interests. This is an important step in the right direction. The major difficulty in open peer review is that some reviewers are unwilling to cooperate: a smaller percentage of reviewers are willing to act as reviewers in an open, transparent system than otherwise (Smith, 1999). While this may pose a problem to editors, the decision by the BMJ is hopefully the beginning of a larger cultural change in the life sciences leading to a more transparent and honest system. Scientific progress, not stagnation, is the purpose of science. In fact, most scientific revolutions occur when scientists are beginning their academic careers (Table 1). "Scientists tend to make their major contributions within ten years of the end of their professional educations after which their creative contributions to science tends to decline," wrote Charles F. Longino, Jr. The average age of authors at which the most significant scientific breakthroughs occurred is 32 years-old (Table 1).

Name Breakthrough Approximate Age at Breakthrough Comments
Joseph Priestley Many, mostly in Chemistry. His most famous experiments revolved around gases, such as oxygen. 34-41 (series of experiments and publications) Priestley was not a scientist but became curious about a number of phenomena which led to his discoveries in Chemistry.
Friedrich Kekulé Introduced the concept of the chemical bonds, the tetravalent carbon atom, and the use of structural formulas to explain the formation of molecules. 24 (idea) and 36 (publication)
Dmitri Mendeleev Periodic Table 35 (publication)
Isaac Newton Theory of Gravity 23 (idea) and 44 (publication)
Albert Einstein Theory of Relativity 26 (Theory of Restricted Relativity and the Photoelectric Effect)
Philo Farnsworth Television 14 (idea) and 21 (invention)
Alexander Fleming Penicillin 47 (discovery) It is debatable whether Fleming merits to be on this list since he made a discovery more based on chance than creativity.
Charles Townes Maser and laser 36 (idea)
Alfred Wegener Plate Tectonics 31 (idea) and 35 (publication)
Charles Darwin Theory of Evolution 27 (idea) and 50 (publication)
James Watson & Francis Crick DNA Structure 23 (Watson) and 35 (Crick)
Benoit Mandelbrot Fractals 51 (publication) Interestingly, the work of Mandelbrot was largely based on the mathematical work of Gaston Maurice Julia, published when Julia was 25.
Leo Baekeland True Plastic 44 (invention)
Tim Berners-Lee Internet 25 (invention)
Rachel Carson The contemporary environmental movement 50 (idea) While not being a scientific discovery, the work of Rachel Carson was revolutionary for environmental science. It is debatable when she started thinking of such ideas and it may have been much sooner.
Enrico Fermi Multiple, including the first nuclear reactor and the Fermi Laws. 41 (nuclear reactor) & 25 (Fermi Laws) Before helping build the first nuclear reactor, Fermi had already won a Nobel Prize at age 37.
Sigmund Freud Psychoanalysis 49 (publication)
Robert Goddard Rocketry 25 (idea) and 30 (theory) and 40 (invention)
Kurt Gödel Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems 25 (publication)
Edwin Hubble Discovered that the universe is expanding 35 Like Fleming, Hubble made a discovery, but his inspiration was the catalyst for his discovery.
John Maynard Keynes Multiple contributions to economics 35 (idea) and 53 (publication) It is difficult to establish when Keynes began his astonishing contributions to economics, but his most famous work was published when he was 53.
Jean Piaget Child psychology 25 (start of his theory) Like others, it is difficult to establish when Piaget first developed his theory.
Jonas Salk Polio Vaccine 33 (idea) and 41 (invention)
William Shockley Transistor 37 (invention)
Alan Turing Turing machine 25
Ludwig Wittgenstein Multiple contributions to philosophy 33 (publication) Though Wittgenstein's major work was published when he was 33, he no doubt thought of many of the concepts earlier in his life.
The Wright Brothers Flight 36 (Wilbur) and 32 (Orville)

Table 1: A non-exhaustive list of the greatest thinkers and scientists of modern history. Based on: Horvitz, L. A. (2001) and TIME 100: Scientists and Thinkers. I based this table on scientists because there are fewer age bias towards scientists than towards statesmen or artists. Business ideas could also be a good theme but it is harder to discriminate idea from implementation than in science.

If you are a reviewer, please help support open peer review by disclosing your identity to authors. Personally, I sign papers I review, though ultimately it is up to editors to decide whether to disclose my identity or not.


References

Brown, H. M. (2003). "Peer review should not be anonymous." BMJ 326:824. Available online.

Godlee, F. (2002). "Making reviewers visible: openness, accountability, and credit." JAMA 287:2762-2765. Available online.

Horvitz, L. A. (2001). "Eureka!: Scientific Breakthroughs that Changed the World." New York: Wiley. Available online.

O'Reilly, J. (2002). "Risk, adventure and the tyranny of peer review." Engineering Science and Education Journal December: 251-253. Available online.

Rothwell, P. M. and Martyn, C. N. (2000). "Reproducibility of peer review in clinical neuroscience: Is agreement between reviewers any greater than would be expected by chance alone?" Brain 123:1964-1969. Available online.

Smith, R. (1999). "Opening up BMJ peer review." BMJ 318:4-5. Available online.

van Rooyen, S. et al. (1999). "Effect of open peer review on quality of reviews and on reviewers' recommendations: a randomized trial." BMJ 318:23-27. Available online